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OpEd: The Best in Human Entertainment Comes From Robots:

Warning: There are a lot of quotation marks in this column, because words like “movie” and “radio” are now more often used symbolically than technically. When’s the last time you listened to “radio” on an actual radio?

First, let’s define our terms. I would stretch the term “robot” to include any computer intervention that, years ago, was performed by a human being.  So, those rheostats we have in our home that can be controlled by commands sent from our cell phones? Taken broadly, I would call those robotic.  An $88-drone from Sharper Image that takes pictures of your neighbors tanning in their backyard… maybe not so much. That’s really just you redefining the term “wasting time.”

Now a look at the term “human.”  Charlie Tuna is gone. Not the beatnik animated fish that sells canned tuna, but human radio disc jockey Art Ferguson whose nome de broadcast was Charlie Tuna. Tuna was a giant at KHJ-AM (AM once being dominant) in the late 1960’s and later was instrumental in creating the formats for what became KROQ and KIIS FM. His human voice, described as a “crystalline baritone”, bonded bands and hit records to radio listeners for almost 50 years.

I can’t speak to the amount of actual platter spinning Tuna might have done. At a certain point, radio music would be transferred to “carts” not dissimilar to retro eight-track tape and “disc jockeys” no longer actually jockeyed discs. But they were the humans that created a mood, made the segue from a commercial to “a phone call from Tina in Anaheim” … to the next song and then the next.

There are still humans broadcasting radio, with arguably the most human of them creating content for National Public Radio. But as I noted at the top, we don’t get as much of it from actual radios as we used to: We listen online, we listen through our phones. There are some radio music formats that run all day almost completely without human intervention. “Jack FM” and other syndicated programming formats substitute a human DJ with prerecorded droll station ID’s using the same announcer and add some “humanity” by using prerecorded funny phone calls from listeners. Listeners who dial into a robot phone mail and leave their message for Jack to use as needed.  The Jack FM format is, like a McDonald’s, the same in every city that has it.  The tapes are copied; the machines play the tapes. Online music services are all that, but with less hardware and more software.

Now let’s go to the movies, where for years there has not been a human projectionist in the booth to adjust the focus or deal with (God forbid!) a broken film strip. Machines on timers lower the lights and run the previews and then the feature… all of it glued together to make a large spool that sits horizontally on a metal platter. Disc jockeys indeed! If the film is projecting badly, you can try talking to one of the kids at the refreshment stand, but… good luck. 

Of course most people enjoy a trouble-free experience at the movies because, well, that’s why we use robots.  And once all movie theaters have digital projection, there will be even less that can go wrong. Except of course the possibility that legions of humans will refuse to drive, park, and pay to watch robot-projected movies coming off of a hard drive.

If you accept that about half the time your “movie” is going to be computer-generated animation or effects … now you have a robot-assisted film projected by a robot in a theater which, by that time, may have a completely automated snack stand. So if there is a problem with your movie, you can ask the popcorn robot to talk to the projection robot.

Dwelling on all this I came up with a possible point of origin, the “Typhoid Mary” if you will of automated devices taking over our entertainment needs: It was ice makers in refrigerators. Before that, if you were having a party you had to either make ice by filling trays and carefully placing then into the freezer of your ‘fridge… or buy ice cubes in a bag. That meant driving and getting the guy to open the locked cooler in the parking lot and you carrying the cubes to the station wagon… all human interactions. Then they put ice makers inside refrigerators, and we all just sat back and drank our cool drinks thanks to our ice robot. Today, catalogs like Sharper Image offer little robots that will bring you a beer. I think they’re meant to be ironic.

At some point there will likely be an app for making ice on our phones. Until then, there’s this issue of much of our entertainment – and as a by-product, much of our “culture” – coming from machines. Movie critics urge us to share “a theater experience with strangers sitting in the dark”, but every day we are moving further away from that kind of socialization. Our pop music, half of its audio value disemboweled by digital file compression, can be played backwards or forwards on just about anything. David Bowie dies, and a search engine at Pandora programs the online tribute.  In 1966 Charlie Tuna got a phone call from fellow human Brian Wilson asking if Tuna might play the Beach Boys latest record, “Good Vibrations.”  The song has a musical hook featuring the electronic instrument the Theremin, which delivers space-age sounds when you move your hands over it… without actually touching it. A kind of sound robot if you will…

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