Gil Bailie and I had a short conversation this afternoon with an AI ‘customer support’ assistant developed by our cell phone company to handle most of the mundane chores answering customer’s questions and facilitating simple account matters. In the days before this AI interaction I considered that the easiest way (and my preferred way) to handle the transaction we were contemplating was to go to a physical office of the company, of which there is at least one in every town it seems, and speak with a human being. So, I went to the very office where some years ago we initially opened our cell phone service. However, I was surprised to be told that the store was not authorized to make such account changes and that I would have to call the company’s support line on my cell phone. This is what Gil and I did today and I must say the conversation was a bit surreal. After telling the voice call auto-attendant what we wanted to do, we were told that our call was being transferred to an ‘account expert’. The machine asked a few questions in written text on the screen of the phone to clarify our inquiry and within 10 minutes what needed to be done was done. It is likely that this one program can handle many thousands of calls at the same time and never get tired or need a break. And there was virtually no wait time ‘for the next available customer support’ person.
In the auto industry over the past fifty years hundreds of thousands of good paying US blue collar jobs have been replaced by automation. Artificial Intelligence is now doing the same thing in the service sector to not so good paying jobs. I certainly appreciate the advances in quality, safety, and reliability of automobiles over the past decades. And today I felt a little relief that the anticipated hour long ordeal of getting a simple change to our account was handled so quickly and efficiently. No doubt many of those who used to work in the raucous customer support call centers may also be glad to be out that job. But what do they do now? Here we may get a glimpse of one of the underlying factors contributing to our current societal instability. Whose job will be replaced by a machine next?
Today’s phone call with an AI did not pass my ‘Turing Test’. I knew after the first question I was dealing with a machine. In previous support calls with other service providers when my concerns were at last understood and handled with some modicum of competence, at the end of the call I could say ‘thank you’. Today…how do I thank the programmers?