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Cynthia Liem

Recommender Rebel

In his 1989 essay Real Presences, critic George Steiner gives perhaps the most divine compliment to music. He describes music as “brimful of meanings which will not translate into logical structures or verbal expression”. Following on Steiner, theologist Karen Armstrong further emphasizes the spiritual experience that one might have when listening to particularly classical music. She writes: “music goes beyond the reach of words: it is not about anything. A late Beethoven quartet does not represent sorrow but elicits in it hearer and prayer alike; and yet it is empathetically not a sad experience. Like tragedy, it brings intense pleasure and insights”. Supported by violins, flutes and drums, the beautiful symphonies of Beethoven and his peers might give the audience an ‘out of the body’-experience. Indeed, music reaches “resonances in our bodies at levels deeper than will or consciousness”.
Although theology is not quite the field of expertise of computer scientist Cynthia Liem, she would certainly agree with these beautiful compliments. In 2011, Cynthia obtained, next to her Master in Computer science from 2009, the Master of Music degree in classical piano performance. She has been giving classical performances ever since. Yet for live performances, one thing that she regrets seeing is that only a small minority of classical works and composers get all the attention. On digital music platforms, the challenge for diversity is even more complex. Automatic recommender systems put famous works forward, and push less known ones into the background. Over time, such filtering mechanisms keep our musical perspectives infinitely limited, and classify those famous works as the only ones that can be considered ‘successful’. However, as Cynthia asks it herself: “what if a user would want to develop a new interest? And what about those many items that got digitalized, but hardly ever get found, simply because too few people know of their existence?” Automatic recommender systems and filtering mechanisms dictate the ‘formula for success’, and Cynthia believes it is worth questioning them.
To do so, Cynthia makes use of her expertise in Computer Science. As Associate Professor at the Multimedia Computing Group at the University of Delft, Cynthia explores how algorithms can help to bring to the surface information that users would not discover by themselves. Staying close to her musical interests, one project that Cynthia is working on is the European research project TROMPA. Its mission: to investigate how public-domain digital music recourses can be made more accessible to a wider audience. Importantly, Cynthia’s interest in recommender systems goes beyond music alone. As of 2018, she works on a Veni-project that “examines alternative recommendation algorithms that function as curators, and encourage gradually increasing digital perspectives broadening in the collections”. To emphasize the importance of this research, Cynthia invokes the AI recruiting tool that was used by Amazon to select and employ new software developers. Similar to recommender systems biasing certain musical works, the recruiting tool would observe that previous software developers had been primarily male, which is why it classified mostly male software developers as ‘successful’ and pushed female software developers into the background. Here, Cynthia argues that copying the existing ‘formula for success’ would mean that only male software developers would become selected.
At the University of Delft, Cynthia continues her ‘battle’ against poorly-designed recommender systems. Here, she expands her research to also investigate how we can measure and validate big data in the first place. This includes the psychological assessment of among others well-being in musicians. The latter exemplifies that, in one way or the other, music continues to be a source of inspiration in Cynthia’s academic work. As she describes it herself: “I want to stimulate the broadening of horizons, in myself and in others. In this, I want to pay special attention to keep ‘that which we do not trivially see and know already’ within reach” – an inspiration dictum: the next time we engage in the thrilling experience of musical self-transcendence, one should feel free to look beyond Beethoven.

Cynthia Liem

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