Project (2019)

Artificial “Listening”: From Fechner to Sensor Fusion

At the MPIWG, I will develop one chapter of a larger forthcoming book for MIT Press that focuses on how we make sense in our current age of artificial sensing, artificial intelligence, and quantification of the senses. I want to speculatively investigate whether one less acknowledged aspect of the present obsession with the quantification of the senses, particularly in the kinds of models of machine “listening” that are now being built, could be traced back to an unlikely source: Gustav Fechner’s mid-nineteenth-century efforts to develop the discipline of psychophysics—literally, the physical measurement of sense perception. Fechner’s work, which provides the foundation for modern psychology, moved between philosophy, physiology, and medicine, and focused on developing methods to measure perceptual thresholds (called “limens”) and intensity discrimination. In contemporary audio research, psychophysics has long been utilized in critical listening labs for the measurement of just noticeable differences in auditory perception. But perhaps Fechner’s work might also provide us with a historical basis for understanding how human sensing and, particularly, hearing is currently being reconfigured in statistical models of acoustic “intelligence” that are transforming our understanding of perception both in terms of humans and in terms of machines.