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2020-07-06

Examiner of the numbers behind music — Dr. Rhett Herng-Yow Chen

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Huddled within a school dormitory room on top of a windy mountain peak is Dr. Rhett Herng-Yow Chen (陳恒佑), a professor with the NCNU Department of Computer Science and Information Engineering, and his feline companion. For the past three months, he has been crafting a vortex-shaped head for a wooden violin by hand, enjoying the intimate touch of wood against hardened steel. For the virtuoso of machine language has yet to master the art of handcrafting musical instruments.

Chen is a pioneering researcher at the junction of humanities and engineering, and the first NCNU professor to use software to teach music composition. He also completed the Foreign Books Reading Area, a corner of the library dedicated to foreign-language literature, and is currently seeking technology-driven answers to address educational challenges in language learning.

Chen discovered that educational programs through CDs, MP3s, multimedia programs, animations, and virtual classrooms are plenty in demand, but their usefulness have yet been documented by performance evaluations. To better understand how the human brain deciphers and retains knowledge pertaining to language, the professor began to venture into related fields like psychology, neurology, early brain development, and instrument learning. The scientific study of the human brain, however, has yet to reveal the specific answers desired by the professor.

It was only after matching theories with data and experience that Chen found the key to language learning wasn’t tied to knowledge nor grammar, but immersion. He began listening to various English programs to build up his vocabulary, familiarity with spoken conversation, and comfortability with the language as a whole. As someone who struggled with English as a high school student, the professor believes that he is best-suited to rethink the academic approach to teaching language.

In the rising age of artificial intelligence, a new wave of tech-driven terminology joins common parlance. Case in point: cloud computing, big data analysis, human-created intelligence. Chen isn’t concerned about keeping abreast of the trendiest terms, because he sees the person née user, not the computer, as the key to learning. Technology, he reasons, is valuable for its provision of convenience, smartness, and efficiency, but this only breeds dependence and apathy, which are both detrimental to promoting active participation, interest levels, and knowledge retention.

Since technology did not hold the answer he sought, the professor returned to his research of how the human brain becomes trained in languages and music to address his core concern — what drives people’s behavior and social interactions.

Information technology is a scientific field of logic and trouble-shooting, which, to Chen, means it is guided by what the pool of human knowledge already holds. Moreover, machines made in man’s likeness are less likely to hold the answers than the timelessness of nature’s cyclical rules. Programs can then better regulate human behavior and respect the instilled patterns of nature.

Recently, with a grant from Taiwan’s Ministry of Education, Chen rolled out a digital learning curriculum on computer-assisted music learning, inspired by his own musical journey, which began at the age of 40 with piano lessons. The late start was cushioned with scientific theories and technology pertaining to musical composition, making him wanting to make this teaching approach more widely available: “Utilizing digital tools, this course offers students a chance to write a song of their own! This helps bridge the musical instrument divide for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

To film the video series, Chen had to transform his university classroom to a production studio housing a piano, cello, and drum set. Students became set designers, cinematographers, and post-production editors. “I hope to help students surpass the limits of their specialized areas of study, instead of producing literature majors who can’t code, or engineers with no art background,” he explained. “The process of learning how to program can also strengthen one’s foreign language and research capabilities.”

The boundlessness of knowledge contained within the universe made Chen embrace his limitations and focus on the apex of human technology and natural laws. His optimism for the imminent bounds of human progress can be summarized as: “I am looking forward to creating a sophisticated detection system that can read the music inside a person’s mind and remotely activate a piano to play that song.”

At the present, Chen believes that it is important not to be limited by the current spectrum of human knowledge and technology. The warmth and moral values of human civilization must be infused with the development of artificial intelligence, said the purveyor of scientific knowledge who leads the way with honesty and dedication.

中文

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Write to Professor Chen: hychen@mail.ncnu.edu.tw

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