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Can an artificial-intelligence DJ outmix Steve Aoki?


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Startup Pacemaker has been putting its artificial-intelligence DJ technology through its paces, in what it’s describing as a ‘DJ Turing Test’ against dance star Steve Aoki.

Pacemaker’s AI DJ is part of its iOS app, where it automatically turns people’s Spotify playlists into flowing mixes.

The company has run a test in which 100 people listened to 20 mixed song transitions, half chosen at random from Aoki’s ‘The Retrospective Mix: 2011 –2017’, and half randomly selected from a mix that Pacemaker’s AI DJ created using the same tracks as Aoki’s set.

The participants had to guess whether each transition was the work of a “skilled human DJ’ or an AI, as well as rating the quality of the transition from 1 to 10.

According to Pacemaker, Aoki’s ‘human’ rating was 55%, ahead of the Pacemaker DJ’s 51.5%, while he also outscored the AI on the quality of his mixing: 6.4 to 6.3 out of 10 respectively. But it’s a close thing.

Now, this isn’t the kind of independent experiment that you can draw any kind of scientifically-rigorous conclusions from, given that it was run by Pacemaker itself, paying 100 people to take part, and adding a bonus for every time they guessed right.

It’s still interesting though: An AI DJ may not be better than Steve Aoki (yet), but it may well be good enough for the needs of a number of listeners. Pacemaker is hoping to license its technology to streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music for exactly this reason.

The company’s pitch is that DJ mixes are hard for these services to license, although startups like Dubset are trying to make it easier – that company was responsible for shepherding Aoki’s mix on to Apple Music, for example.

Pacemaker is hoping that its technology could get around this problem by automatically mixing tracks that are already licensed on an individual basis by the streaming services.

(Which in turn, it hopes will lure listeners away from the free tiers of platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud towards paid-subscription services. Pacemaker claims that DJ mixes may account for as much as 14% of total YouTube music listening.)

The company is also making a play for the business-to-business market, targeting companies like Soundtrack Your Brand and Rockbot which provide music for hotels, retailers and gyms.

“This is not an AlphaGo moment just yet, but our test clearly shows that AI can compete with human DJs in the context of a mainstream music service like Apple Music. And an AI scales well,” said CEO Jonas Norberg.

“It can take successful personal playlists like Apple’s Chill Mix and Spotify’s Daily Mix and turn them into customised and unique quality mixes for everyone… Ultimately we believe that the mix will replace the playlist because it offers a better consumption experience that increases engagement and lifetime value.”

For now, Steve Aoki can rest at ease, having seen off the virtual turntable skills of Pacemaker’s AI. Betteridge’s Law of Headlines (‘Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no’) remains unbroken. That said, how this technology develops – and whether it’s taken up by the streaming services – will be fascinating to watch.

Stuart Dredge

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