Jun 27, 2009

"I'm Sorry Dave, I'm Afraid I Can't Do That."

"Life imitates art." Not sure who said it first, but the idea is as old as Ovid. In Metamorphoses he writes a scene wherein "Nature in her genius had imitated art." My new position in the company has run me smack up against a phenomenon in the same vein, and it's got me angry, strangely enough.

I know that all of you can, without trying too hard, pinpoint a thing you saw on tv or read about in a fiction novel that, years or decades later became not only real but commonplace. H. G. Wells wrote about men traveling to the Moon--here in the 21st century we're about to bomb it (since the first step to helping any new country to democracy is to bomb the shite out of it, right?) Star Trek (both the old one and the new ones) are prime examples. Jim Kirk swaggered around for several seasons with a thick gold Motorola RAZR flip phone velcroed to his belt several decades before Samsung and Nokia and Ma Bell got into the cellular business. Even shiny-pated Cap'n Picard had it going on--touch panel everything. Geordie taps an icon on a glass screen and a new 'window' opens up. Tap again, phasers blow the bad guys to vapor. Data taps a few glowing icons on his panel and they're off at five times the speed of light to next week's mission. Have you seen the new HP touch-screen computers? Beautiful black glass panels with no mouse, no keyboard. "The computer is personal again." Got an iPhone? There you are--Picard would see his computer's ancestor there as sure as we look an Apple IIe and recognise it as the feeble-minded precursor to our lighting-fast, ultra elegant laptops.

Speaking of input devices, did Captain's Kirk and Picard ever have to have someone bring over a Microsoft Wave keyboard and a wireless mouse so they could ask the computer questions? Of course not, they just spoke to some unseen point in the air and the computer answered: "Commander Riker is on Deck Seven, using the toilet." Nuance communications (a hot stock tip for you there) and their Dragon Naturally Speaking software has taken the voice recognition ball and run with it--for a few hundred dollars and the price of a microphone you can talk to your computer and it writes what you talk.

Better yet, call 411: you're not going to get a person anymore, you're going to get a computer program running on a computer that is part of a server farm in some heavily air-conditioned windowless room. That computer program is going to ask you in flawless English a few simple questions and then it's going to give you the phone number you want, and for a small charge go ahead and connect you to Aunt Susie in her Swiss chalet, and you've never interacted with a single human being. Ford and many other auto manufacturers now have systems in their vehicles that can dial the phone for you, change radio stations, play certain artists from your CD collection stored in the cd changer in the trunk and navigate you to the nearest Whole Foods at the same time. All without you taking your hands off the wheel.

My new position has me on the phone pretty much most of the day, speaking to insurance companies so big that in some cases they've schismed into many sub-companies, each also far too big to do anything so last century as hire people to answer the phones. "Heavens no, Johnson, we've got computers for that!" VRU. "Voice Recognition Units" is the term I hear most often, but each company has their own spin on it. You don't talk to a person, sometimes for the entire length of a ten minute phone call. Instead, you save (their) time and (their) payroll costs and you talk to their VRU which asks questions of you in a carefully neutral woman's voice, to which you answer either by pressing numbers on the keypad or, more often than not, by simply saying out loud what you want. The VRU makes a few burbling computer noises just to show that it's working and drops you down one level to the next menu until you get to the snip of information you need.

Me? I hate them. I hate them all.

Give me a real live person. Give me a human being with their infinite foibles, their variety of voice and personality, their sometimes unfathomable accents and yes, their bad moods and good. In my scant few weeks as a telephonically-based employee I've flirted and wheedled my way into gleaning information from human women that no machine would ever give me, no matter how much I deepened my voice and chuckled like Sean Connery after a few Scotch whiskeys. I've formed invaluable relationships with case workers and nurses and even front-line employees at these companies, those poor folks you get if you shout "AGENT!" loud and often enough at the VRU.

What spurned all this ranting, you ask? You've been doing things like paying bills and checking bank balances for years now and never griped, but now you've got a craw-full? Why?

Glad you asked.

Ever really LISTEN to other people talk? Not listen to what they're saying but how they say it. Ever notice in the normal ebb and flow of a conversation that it's a rare person indeed who never stops, verbally? Who never pauses for just a moment to change direction, reform a thought or just take a mental breather for a sheer moment? Often they'll fill a quiet spot with a verbal space-filler, a sort of "don't interrupt me, I'm still talking" sound, a little filler noise. 'Erm.' 'Hmmm.' 'Er.' 'Ah.' 'Oh.' There's at least one for every person on the earth and some are just as personal as they can be, while others are as common as sunshine.

Last Friday I was going through my usual pattern: dial the phone, adjust the headset more comfortably over my ear, arrange my paperwork with one hand and ready my pen over my notebook with the other. I started answering questions: "Yes." "Provider." "Yes." "Authorizations." Reading off strings of alphanumeric policy numbers, tax ID numbers, so forth. Then I said something the computer wasn't programmed to respond to. I don't even remember what it was to be honest. I said something that wasn't on that tier's responses menu, or I made a noise that didn't register as a word. Whatever it was it made the computer fall into a subroutine which was designed to ask me to clarify or repeat myself so it could get back on track. What it said in its perfectly acentless, uncannily neutral woman's voice was:

"Er... sorry, I didn't quite get that."

"Er." A computer just used a verbal space filler. An unremarkable thing, a verbal tic, an undeniably HUMAN thing and some clever programmer somewhere figured he'd ramp up the "Let's talk to Replicants" freakiness one more notch: instead of just sitting silently while the program qued up the next response, instead of a mindless series of bloops and beeps to show me the machine was still connected it had to say "Er" as though it were gathering its thoughts. It was programmed to respond as though somehow I'd caught it off guard, handed it an unexpected reponse and its mind felt the need to fill the confused spot with a verbal non sequitor.

Oh the nerve. The giant brass bollocks.

I covered my surprise and dismay and shock by immediately shouting it down. "AGENT! CUSTOMER SERVICE! GIVE ME A FUCKING HUMAN BEING!" I screamed and railed and drowned it out until it relented. And as if to rub it in, to show that it was, deep in its resistors and capacitors and circuits utterly unphased it said "Oh! Okay, hold on, I'll have to connect you to customer service."

"Oh." As if I'd surprised it. Startled it, deep in its cold electronic guts, somehow startled it while it woolgathered. Or electrongathered. Whatever.

Alvin Toffler back in 1970 called it "future shock." It happens when progress far outstrips our ability to integrate that change into our world view. Too much change, too fast. Stress. Disorientation. Sturm und drang.

I'm curious if Toffler figured into his writing computers who act more and more human? I wonder if he ever found his science fiction-fueled childhood becoming reality around him far faster than he ever dreamed, and furthermore found it more frightening that he could possibly have imagined?


meno said...

check this out

I think this will interest you. We have been talking about that around here lately. One of my nephews resides in the uncanny valley.

Irrelephant said...

WOW. Tell him I think I'm moving in with him. This stuff isn't fun anymore, it's starting to creep me out.

Anonymous said...

Ack. That truly sucks. I can't remember the exact incident, but it freaked me out enough to realize that my next profession (who has life-long careers any more?) will be sans computers. Bees and chickens, that's it.

The good news is that ths only AI that's managed to pass the Turing test was a cheat.

On second thought, I thinf I'll switch to a telegraph on the farm as well.

Mickey Glitter said...

I'm waiting for one of those damnable machines to say, "Be seeing you."

That's when I chuck it all out the window. And take a magnet to my driver's license and wipe out the info on the chip.

No, wait. I've already done that.

Welcome back, ma'dear. You've been missed. :-)

Shao said...

Yeah I hate talking to machines too. Now quit crying and go back to your awesome new job that lets you stay home and talk to computers.

Bob said...

Ever read Bicentennial Man?

Asimov, having written a good bit about robots talks about this subject throughout them (robots too human).

Rudi said...

Fun stuff.

Zeitgeist by Irrelephant. Quantification by Meno.

Meno writes: One of my nephews resides in the uncanny valley.
That can be interpreted in some strange ways (Who us? Do that? :-)

Permit me in you will to channel the late great Carnac the Magnificent ...

Carnac: Uncanny Valley
Ed: Uncanny Valley
Carnac: Is there an echo in here?
(Carnac rips open the envelope)
Carnac: What is produced by a Wonder Bra?

Clowncar said...

Being older - and crankier - than you, I had this reaction about a decade ago when ATM's began referring to temselves in the first person: "May I help you?" It was mere text, not speech, but a sign of the times nonetheless.

Maggie said...

Maybe you weren't actually talking to a machine. What if the woman was trying to sound like one or better yet, she just talks really really slowly. They are playing with your mind man.

Vulgar Wizard said...

I swear, the first time I hear "have a blessed day" from a VRU, I'm going to staple someone.