Discussing my music taste with a robot: my little adventure with AI

In the first days of the quarantine, when my acquaintances in Austria, Hungary, then in Great Britain were suddenly stuck in their homes, my WhatsApp- and Messenger communication tremendously multiplied. I received many pictures and texts by people of my age but also the elderly, and among them, many to react on anxiety caused by insecurity with humour. Like I received several versions of the meme “it’s no problem if you talk to your kitchen devices, but start to worry if they reply!”. Well, there was a device that indeed replied to me. But it would have been worrying if it had not done so, as it is an artificial intelligence designed for conversation. I have seen similar things at an exhibition or on the online helpdesk of services, but this was still something new for me.

“It might seem weird for a cultural institution to develop a chatrobot – Balázs Rákóczi, leader of digital marketing explains. – However, just like with many of our innovations, this was also inspired by our audience. They have many frequently asked questions that we wanted to answer as fast as we can, and the chatbot also gives us the possibility of sending news and messages to our audience. Müpa has always been a committed innovator, be it the launch pf unusual programmes or technological developments.”

After connecting to the equipment, then reading through and accepting the terms and conditions, it is time for fun. Thankfully for trusting it, the robot immediately gives me a trivia info that I had no idea of.

“Did you know we even were a Chinese space centre once? It happened in The Martian, a 2015 film by Ridley Scott. In one scene, even a HÉV (suburban railway of Budapest) passes by on the banks of the Danube.”

In the case of text messages like these, it really feels like talking to a coworker of Müpa, and the robot even enhances the illusion with the three dots that appear before its messages, as if it was typing. The fact that it is a mere robot gets clearer when it offers single choice options: Choose from these, or type your question and I’ll try to answer! Season Ticket Quiz ?, News  ?, Programmes ?. Although it could be interesting to make it talk for longer, I decide for the season ticket quiz. Let’s see how the robot decides on what concerts I should visit.

So the single choice buttons come, one after the other, I just have to choose one of them. Any time I do it, the first I get is an image featuring details of the inner and outer space of Müpa, impressions in an artistic, sometimes abstract, close-up form. I hear from my informants that the photos were selected by the creative team of Müpa.

“We wanted to introduce and show Müpa as an iconic venue, as we are delighted to see how popular these photos are in our social media channels.”

On the one hand, these are pretty good photos and I see why they are popular. On the other hand, after awhile I feel disturbed by the fact that they do not feature any people. If it is a season ticket quiz, I would see some eligible portraits of musicians, or photos taken at concerts, or anything more dynamic than wainscot, carpet, or tiles. Maybe because, given the fact that what I am “talking” to on the Messenger is not a human, more heterogeneous photos could bring in a bit more human factor. Otherwise, the robot is very strict with me, there is only one question where I can click on “I’m open for everything” – in any other case, I have to choose between two possibilities.

(c) Tamás Réthey-Prikkel

Too bad that I am usually hopelessly indecisive, but I understand that this little game only makes sense if I give proper answers. (I’ll choose you another time!, I say after clicking on “instruments” instead of “singers”, or “rarely heard specialties” instead of “frequently welcome superstars”.) This is how we arrive at the three recommendation based on my spontaneous preferences: Orchestra Box, Early Music, Chamber Treasures.

I usually do not make a big issue around the online marks I leave, especially in the case of innocent info like my favourite music genres. However, I wonder what people would do who are more sceptical towards Facebook’s economic and data regulation strategy (say, we do not pay for it because we are the products). Would they still want to play the game? I ask the developers about this and I get the following answers:

“We chose a platform which is easy to use and well-known. In Hungary, Messenger by Facebook is one of the most popular communication channels, so we decided to develop our chatbot there, being ideal and reachable for our audience. With the help of data protection law experts we created a GDPR-compatible device which is safe in every way. New users can only talk to the chatbot after agreeing on the terms and conditions, so our data protection policy is transparent to everyone”

– Balázs Rákóczi says.

“What makes artificial intelligence exciting is its ongoing development according to our audience’s needs, as the more and more questions and texts the chatbot gets, the more it will give more and more accurate answers to please its users. Apart from this, we also want to have a creative way of messaging our news to our audience. Müpa is one of the most important performance centre of this region: we do not only intend to follow but also to shape trends in the domain of culture”

– dr. Gábor Egri, director of marketing and development, also adds.

The current pandemic is an extremely difficult situation for the Müpa, as they had to cancel many live concerts. Yet, the extreme circumstances showed clearly that they are on a good way with their digital innovation.

“The replayed concert by world famous Russian virtuose pianist Denis Matsuev was seen by 40 000, the show by Bobby McFerrin by 60 000 people on our online platforms – executive officer Csaba Káel says happily. – It is lovely to see more and more people getting involved, and each person in front of their screens contribute to an audience, to an interested, curious and active virtual community. They share their ideas, support and encourage each other, ask and offer help. Although we know that nothing can replace the magic of live productions, we still work on an accessible digital version of the Müpa experience. We were the first institution in Hungary to open its media libraries to the unregistered public for free, where more than 100 videos can be seen, not to mention our podcasts. This unity, cooperation, solidarity is extremely important these days, and Müpa wants to contribute to this and support the audience on every platform.”

I know that as long as the covid-19 is around, it is almost irreal to think about sitting in a concert hall among hundreds of people soon. However, playing a round of game with this chatbot can help us. It, with the rough dispassion of a robot, simply tells us the info: there are new season tickets, there will be many more concerts, we are gonna get through this. We stay sane. We stay alive. We survive.

Stay healthy everyone!