The streaming, AI and VR-assisted future of listening
Tweet, view, swipe, like, follow, share. As our world has become filled with screens in our work as well as personal lives, it has also become filled with more and more visual imagery – and it can all start to feel a bit garish, a bit fake or simply too much.
For some time now, whenever I’m in the office, instead of sitting in front of my laptop over lunch, I force myself away from my desk for 15 minutes, find a quiet space or just sit in my car, put in my earphones, turn on some music, and close my eyes. I've found that I can actually relax better by tuning out the visual world and concentrating on my music. I sleep better, I dream better, I live better. Even the brief lunch break clearly does some good, as I often work and engage better in the afternoon too.
According to a recent study, I’m not alone. Feeling increasingly distressed by fakery and overloaded with superficial images, millennials and Gen Z in particular are seeking deeper connection, greater meaning and more mindfulness – and they’re finding it when they close their eyes and start to listen.
The emerging sonic revolution
More and more, listening is becoming an essential focus of our daily lives. Here we are in early 2020, about to enter a sound-first era, what we at HARMAN are calling the “Decade of Sound.” How do we know this? Let’s take a look at some key findings from a recent study HARMAN and market research company Futuresource Consulting conducted with more than 8,000 consumers across six countries concerning “The Future of Listening”:
92% of Brits believe music eases everyday pressures
90% consider sound an integral part of life
81% of UK respondents say music makes them feel happy
57% report their music consumption has increased compared to a year ago
We aren’t the only ones to pick up on this trend. A recent Spotify study confirmed that the majority of millennials and Gen Z believe audio offers a vital escape from today’s visual overstimulation. And “The Big Comeback of Audio” was celebrated at the Advertising Week 2019 Convention in New York.
From sonic freedom today to AI and VR experiences tomorrow
We’ve already seen a boom in smart speakers. This and the unleashing of sound experiences from any sort of tether are fuelling the audio revolution. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music mean sound is no longer dependent on a carrier medium or dedicated device. Instead, listening has become mobile and on-demand. Like an invisible companion, sound accompanies us wherever we go, without interruption. In the future, I believe that the distance between listener and sound will shrink even more. How so…?
VR moments will become a new norm
Thanks to 3D technology and surround sound, sound will accompany us like a kind of halo and open up new virtual spaces for listeners. Soon, you’ll be able to combine listening to music with virtual spaces for an entirely new experience. Imagine relaxing to your favourite reggae classic while looking out over a VR-generated white-sand beach.
AI will allow for true personalisation
While advances in mobile and streaming technology have been fundamental to shaping the listening experience of today, AI will open the next frontier. Three quarters of our survey respondents want an “all-in-one” solution that can remember and adjust their listening preferences according to different environments. And AI will allow for this level of personalisation, with tracks and moods tailored precisely for each listener and acoustics that auto adjust with every song.
AI will get creative
Beyond personalisation, the computer is about to open up another exciting new possibility: music composed entirely by AI. In the near future, computer-generated music is projected to become a viable alternative to music produced by human artists. Of the UK survey respondents, 64% think AI apps to personalise and manipulate music are appealing, while 37% see computer-generated music as the future of listening.
Even in the face of these changes, quality remains key
Despite the notion that today’s listeners have sacrificed quality for convenience, our research shows that sound quality matters to them very much. Good sound quality triggers positive emotions such as a sense of the music coming to life, feeling uplifted or feeling relaxed, while bad quality triggers negative emotions such as dissatisfaction, annoyance or disappointment. With the positive ‘feel good’ benefits in mind, combined with the fact that sound can positively stimulate the nervous system and result in reduced stress, all point to audio contributing to a good atmosphere in the workspace.
This also lends itself more to the concept that audio offers a vital escape from today’s visual overstimulation, thereby creating the potential to improve focus, wellbeing and productivity. After all, it has been proven that better productivity comes as a by-product of a better mood.
Survey respondents confirm that the make-it-or-break-it role of sound quality in the enjoyment of music is likely to grow over the coming years. After years of visual dominance, people are now ready to enter a new era – the Decade of Sound. Technology is a powerful enabler for this shift as it intensifies and diversifies how we listen. With more moments of focused listening, the Decade of Sound will demand flawless audio quality.
AI Shows its Value; Governments Must Unleash its Potential
2020 has revealed just how far AI technology has come as it achieves fresh milestones in the fight against Covid-19. Google’s DeepMind helped predict the protein structure of the virus; AI-drive infectious disease tracker BlueDot spotted the novel coronavirus nine days before the World Health Organisation (WHO) first sounded the alarm. Just a decade ago, these feats were unfathomable.
Yet, we have only just scratched the surface of AI’s full potential. And it can’t be left to develop on its own. Governments must do more to put structures in place to advance the responsible growth of AI. They have a dual responsibility: fostering environments that enable innovation while ensuring the wider ethical and social implications are considered.
It is this balance that we are trying to achieve in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to ensure government accelerates, rather than hinders, the development of AI. Just as every economy is transitioning at the moment, we see innovation as being vital to realising our vision for a post-oil economy. Our work in his space has highlighted three barriers in the government approach when it comes to realising AI’s potential.
First, addressing the issue of ignorance
While much time is dedicated to talking about the importance of AI, there simply isn’t enough understanding of where it’s useful and where it isn’t. There are a lot of challenges to rolling out AI technologies, both practically and ethically. However, those enacting the policies too often don’t fully understand the technology and its implications.
The Emirates is not exempt from this ignorance, but it is an issue we have been trying to address. Over the last few years, we have been running an AI diploma in partnership with Oxford University, teaching government officials the ethical implications of AI deployment. Our ambition is for every government ministry to have a diploma graduate, as it is essential to ensure policy decision-making is informed.
Second, moving away from the theoretical
While this grounding in the moral implications of AI is critical, it is important to go beyond the theoretical. It is vital that experimentation in AI is allowed to happen for its own sake and not let ethical problems stymie innovations that don’t yet exist. Indeed, many of these concerns – while well-founded – are born out in the practical deployment of these end-use cases and can’t be meaningfully discussed on paper.
If you take facial recognition as an example, looking at this issue in abstract quickly leads to discussions over privacy concerns with potential surveillance and intrusion by private companies or authorities’ regimes.
But what about the more specific issue of computer vision? Although part of the same field, the same moral quandaries do not arise, and the technology is already bearing fruit. In 2018, we developed an algorithmic solution that can be used in the detection and diagnosis of tuberculosis from chest X-rays. You can upload any image of a chest X-ray, and the system will identify if a person has the disease. Laws and regulations must be tailored to unique use-cases of AI, rather than lumping disparate fields together.
To create this culture that encourages experimentation, we launched the RegLab. It provides a safe and flexible legislation ecosystem to supports the utilisation of future technologies. This means we can actually see AI in practice before determining appropriate regulation, not the other way around. Regulation is vital to cap any unintended negative consequences of AI, but it should never be at the expense of innovation.
Finally, understanding the knock-on effects of AI
There needs to be a deeper, more nuanced understanding of AI’s wider impact. It is too easy to think the economic benefits and efficiency gains of AI must also come with negative social implications, particularly concern over job loss.
But with the right long-term government planning, it’s possible to have one without the other; to maximise the benefits and mitigate potential downsides. If people are appropriately trained in how to use or understand AI, the result is a future workforce capable of working alongside these technologies for the better – just as computers complement most people’s work today.
We’ve to start this training as soon as possible in the Emirates. Through our Ministry of Education, we have rolled out an education programme to start teaching children about AI as young as five years old. This includes coding skills and ethics, and we are carrying this right through to higher education with the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence set to welcome its first cohort in January. We hope to create future generations of talent that can work in harmony with AI for the betterment of society, not the detriment.
AI will inevitably become more pervasive in society, digitisation will continue in the wake of the pandemic, and in time we will see AI’s prominence grow. But governments have a responsibility to society to ensure that this growth is matched with the appropriate understanding of AI’s impacts. We must separate the hype from the practical solutions, and we must rigorously interrogate AI deployment and ensure that it used to enhance our existence. If governments can overcome these challenges and create the environments for AI to flourish, then we have a very exciting future ahead of us.