Craven Lovelace
Grand Junction Free Press Music Columnist

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October 11, 2012
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KAFM NOTES: The deejay in the Chinese room

At KAFM, we are nearly through another Fall Pledge Drive. Since I am writing this some days before publication, I have no way of knowing whether the radio station has reached or is close to reaching its goal, but I certainly hope so - because at a time when many people think radio is a moribund medium, stations like KAFM have never been more relevant.

Perhaps you disagree. I know some folks who have never tuned into 88.1 on their FM dial. Many have their musical tastes satisfied nowadays by online streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, and it is these individuals from whom I often hear the opinion that radio (as a means of delivering music) is obsolete.

Craven likes to fancy himself as part of the so-called "digerati," a person who uses computers in a variety of ways every day and who values the power and convenience they bring to his work and play. And as such, he has sampled most of the streaming services available, and found they all have their strengths and weaknesses. But there is something that is missing from all of these services, something that you can only get from listening to a radio station like KAFM, where the music is actually being programmed, as you hear it, by a live human being operating in real time.

That something is "mind."

In the world of artificial intelligence research, there is a famous thought experiment, known as the "Chinese Room Argument," which was devised by a professor of philosophy. In 1980, John Searle argued against the possibility of ever achieving true artificial intelligence by postulating a closed room in which sits a man who speaks only English. The man has in his possession very detailed, elaborate instructions on how to translate Chinese into English, and English into Chinese. These instructions are so perfect that when he passes notes in and out under the door of the room, those outside believe the man within speaks Chinese fluently. But in actuality, he understands not a single word of the language.

Searle's point was that no matter how well a computer is programmed to emulate natural language, it will never be able to comprehend the semantics of what it is saying, or what is being said to it. Searle's thought experiment is useful in explaining why stations like KAFM offer an ineffable quality that no streaming service will ever be able to emulate.

While Pandora may find songs similar to one you like, its algorithms can never be fine-tuned so perfectly that it avoids the ones you hate. Spotify may give you the equivalent of a huge CD library, but it will never be able to challenge you, inform you or dig out the obscure, out-of-print gems that a true musical connoisseur can find.

There is still a day left to help KAFM. Please consider calling 970-241-8801 and making a pledge. Because music brought to you by a robot can never thrill like music brought to you by a fellow human being.


Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, You can visit for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.

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