The Unhelpful Valley

One well-known obstacle to the creation of prosthetics, humanoid robots and many three-dimensional animation projects is the Uncanny Valley: the feeling of discomfort that an observer feels once a replica of a human becomes very similar to but not quite the same as an actual human. One of the theories for why this occurs is that beyond a certain degree of similarity we see the replica not as something else doing a passable job of looking human but a human doing a bad job of being human. A similar dislike often exists for technology that offers most of a new feature but cannot do it as well as a human.

If you are like me you have many hours of music on your computer. Sometimes you want to listen to a particular song or album, but usually sometimes you want a radio-like experience of different songs by different artists. As you like some of the songs more than others you would like to hear them more often. As you get bored with hearing the same song every day and conversely enjoy hearing those you have not heard for a while, you would like to hear mostly songs you have not heard for a while.

In the early days of music collections on computers you would do this by creating several play lists with the songs you really liked appearing on more of them, like a virtual mix tape. However now almost all music players can generate play lists automatically using quite complex criteria. Sorting based on when it was last played is now a given, so you can guarantee songs that you have not heard for a while, but songs you have not heard much (or much recently) are a problem. For example, Windows Media Player 11 can filter based on a song having been played less than a certain number of times (or even a certain number of times on a weekend) so you can create a list with all 5 star music not played in the last 7 days which has been played no more than X times and all 4 star music not played in the last 30 days that has been played no more than Y times and change the variables when the list becomes empty. However, despite computers actually being better than humans at calculations, there is no option for number of times played in the lower quartile or lower half of the category. By making the offer of a filter on times played it creates the expectation you can filter based on whether something has been played a lot, so is the actual absence is more irritating than not being able to make an automated play list at all ever was.

If someone calls you on a landline then they (usually) do so having already accepted that you might be out, and will either leave an answer phone message or call back in a while if they need to speak to you. However with a mobile telephone the caller assumes you have it with you. So there is a different emotional reaction to hearing and ignoring one over the other. To counter this problem mobiles have gained methods of filtering calls, such as different ring tones to make certain callers stand out, or settings that only ring for certain numbers, on the face of it reducing the need for you to make yourself available for every call, and giving us all a pseudo-secretary. However these do not differentiate between your mother ringing to say she has been in a crash and your mother ringing to say she spoke to your sister and she is thinking of visiting next month and can you make it as well. They also do not cope with important calls from a pay phone or other unexpected number. So the convenience for being able to choose who can call you becomes the irritant of knowing the call has a greater possibility of being important but might not be worth stopping re-tiling the bathroom for, and some calls you would stop for are not ringing.

So I am waiting for my Neal-Asher-style Aug: a phone that can take the call and decide whether to put it through to me based on whether it is important not whether it is from a number I decided earlier might be used for an important call combined with a music player that can create play lists based on playing the songs I like most but have heard least in the recent past.

Of course there are valid constraints that make these products too expensive or resource intensive to justify the extra ability, so they will probably stay in the pages of science fiction for a while.

Do you find it more irritating if a machine does something badly or not at all? What would you do if pocket AI existed?

Related articles

A global look: the culture of cell phones and tablets (

Smart Phones: Novocaine for the Creative Soul (The Happy Logophile)

Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.