Even the very best radio DJ can be annoying. It’s the nature of the role. No matter how smooth their voice is, they still break in between songs—or worse, talk over them. Their little interruptions, popping into your life at unexpected and often inopportune times, remind you they’re there. They can be annoying, sure, but they’re also comforting, because they’re friendly and familiar humans.
Of course, nobody listens to the radio anymore. We all have Spotify accounts, or mooch off someone else’s. (Thanks Dad!) The radio DJ is a dinosaur, buried and compressed and repurposed to fuel endless algorithmically generated streaming playlists. In a way, it is a blessing. Choose a genre or mood and groove without interruption until the end of time. In the background, an artificial intelligence decides what should come next.
The recent rise of generative AI has made some companies no longer content to just let their algorithms simmer in the background. They want to bring them to the forefront. Partly to show off and try to cash in on the current AI gold rush, but also, I think, in an effort to humanize their algorithms. They shove them into the spotlight to convince people the AIs are super chill, actually, and can hang with us meatsacks.
Spotify, king of the algorithmic playlist, is eager to do just that. The music streaming service is rolling out a new AI DJ service starting this week. It is available as a beta option on the Spotify mobile app, though only for people who pay for Spotify Premium. The feature is the result of Spotify’s acquisition last year of the AI voice service Sonantic. The robot DJ breaks into the stream between songs to tell you what you’re listening to. The voice is modeled on the melodious rumble of Xavier “X” Jernigan, Spotify’s head of cultural partnerships. The generated audio sounds fantastic, especially for a digital simulacrum. AI voices have a tendency to divebomb straight into the uncanny valley, with their strange intonations and halting, robotic cadences. X, in contrast, sounds realistic. Occasionally it stumbles or sounds slightly stilted when saying the name of an artist or song. But otherwise it comes across as a cool, calm voice guiding you through your music. “Take a journey through a little bit of jazz today,” X may invite you. “Tommy Lehman up first.”
However, it does not sound quite natural enough. Though the voice makes quips or shares tidbits about bands you’re listening to, the interruptions never feel warm or personable. You may hate when a dipshit human shock jock word-vomits over the outro of your favorite song to tee up an ad break, but at least there is indeed a dipshit human behind that action. Cast your mind’s eye behind Spotify’s X voice and you will find only the void—a vast jumble of machine-learning metrics and carefully calculated curation that tells you what it thinks you want to hear. Listening to the AI DJ feels eerily lonely, in that it is a constant reminder of what it is not.
What’s even more unnerving is how cavalier it is about how much it knows about you. Like Spotify Wrapped, the AI DJ’s access to your personal data goes deeper than you may think a music service is capable of. X knows enough to play music from your past and guess the emotions that specific songs evoke from you. You can tell the AI to change the mood with the tap of a button, though the changes feel random, and it can take several taps before landing on something you vibe with. Even then, it’s learning still more about you, like where your headspace is at certain times of the day or based on your location. It is saying the quiet part about Spotify’s data collection out loud, and packaging it as a friendly robo-pal. Say what you will about the annoying human DJ, but at least they’re more than a funhouse-mirror reflection of yourself.