I struggle with the concept of artificial intelligence – perhaps because in my 77 years I have had to deal with this intelligence that I can perceive and distill from teachers, friends, art, science and the natural world.
I had to consider and process these inputs, put them in context and determine what is real and worthwhile and what is not.
Technology, like a hand tool, is designed to make life easier. But if the energy needed to learn and use a tool exceeds the energy saved using it, it is not a useful tool as mentioned in the previous column.
The explosion of AI software that seeks to meet our natural human need for help and advice is expected to save billions for the industry, but so far has done little for people looking for answers.
Will AI make the world a better place or just make business more profitable? Will companies prioritize the needs of customers and people, or company policy and profit in implementing artificial intelligence?
The company I co-founded and ran for 25 years provided local call center services for the largest broadcasters and several publishers. At its peak, we employed 80 agents who had been thoroughly trained on our customers’ products. Our goal was to answer all calls by the third ring and we largely succeeded. The agent may reply, “Thank you for calling The History Channel; How can I help you? ”Agents knew the customers’ product lines exactly and had a screen backup for all product inquiries.
We sold the company in 2008 to a private equity firm that set about dodging costs, moved the call center to Southeast Asia, where agents answered the calls of dozens of other companies and tried to implement primitive AI. The deterioration in customer service was so pronounced that customers started leaving en masse, and the company and its 175 jobs disappeared over the next few years.
Have you ever called the toll-free QuickBooks, Adobe, your bank, IRS, Medicare, or the myriad of other services we increasingly rely on? Research shows that 15% of customers hang up after 40 seconds of waiting. When a customer manages to complain to a company about its product or service, does this information ever reach decision makers?
Remember when you can call your travel agent to book from Burlington to Iceland and back, and receive details about your trip. Now you need to work directly with the airline or travel aggregator – good luck.
One persistent airline customer tested the company’s telephone line after a two-hour suspension. He decided to wait and see how long the business would keep him on the line. About 15 hours later, the call was finally pushed through, and he was notified that his original request (which had stopped him in the first place) had been rejected due to a mistake.
My own record is waiting 47 minutes for a human to call the Quicken hotline in the Philippines. We then chatted for another 128 minutes after I gave her online access to my computer and she finally admitted that the system was having “problems” and that I should call back later.
As it turned out, I lost the ability to process financial documentation for 22 years. Fortunately, I made a backup of my data.
In order to apply for admission to American colleges, our fully literate, trilingual Serbian foreign exchange student, Mina, who was the last to earn a total of five at Champlain Valley Union High School, had to take a standardized online test to determine her proficiency in English language.
The first attempt failed due to scheduling confusion between Euro-Military time and US time.
The second attempt, which she had started half an hour earlier, took place on her home computer. This required extensive cabling changes. She passed the technical test and was instructed to download the extension a few minutes before starting. After the download was complete and the test started, the extension created some confusion on the screen. She was told that if an extension was causing a problem, she should click the “help” icon. There was no help icon. We couldn’t fix the technical problem so Mina got disconnected from the site.
We organized a third trial at CVU in her computer lab with the help of technical staff. Mina got there an hour earlier. They solved countless technical problems, including the need to move to a different facility in the school, and the test began. She finished the first half and was given a 10-minute break. She did, went back and started over, but the test page told her she couldn’t complete the test because she took her cell phone to the bathroom (to text me that the test was working).
She was denied access to the second part and called me with tears in her eyes. So, after three trials and charges for each of them, she could not get access to the test required of all international exchange students who would like to apply for admission to an American college – the loss of our country.
I recently went to a restaurant that didn’t have a menu. I had to get a Wi-Fi password from the waitress, enter it into my cell phone, scan the QR code and read the linear menu which included my lunch options and prices. I will never go back there. Maybe I’m just old.
When going to Canada to pick up my wife from the airport, I completed the ArriveCan online application form which is now a prerequisite for anyone traveling to Canada. I filled it in with all my personal details and then asked for a credit card. I was surprised at the fee but carelessly entered my Amex card. It failed. So I introduced the Visa card. Then I received an email saying my payments had failed and an agent would be in touch within 72 hours. Planning to be in Canada in 60 hours, I replied that I needed help sooner.
The answer came from Russia and both cards were torn. I canceled both and went to Canada without credit cards. The fake site perfectly mirrored the legitimate Canadian site by simply adding a card capture.
I am an early adopter. 35 years ago, I wrote my first novel on a laptop the size of an overnight suitcase. However, I am concerned about our aging population, which I belong to. Many now do not have access to the once universal human aid (“navigators,” I think we named them). How does a person of Medicare or Social Security age independently deal with the myriad intricacies of using systems essentially designed to minimize personnel costs?
With our local phone company, we have a fiber optic cable home. But we know a lot of Vermonters who still have a dial-up connection.
If healthcare continues to move to telemedicine, helplines do not get answers and waiting times for an emergency room are getting longer, what is happening to many people who have had lifelong access to medicine through their local primary care physician? How many people will just give up? At a certain age, energy weakens, and perhaps the ability to learn again how to cope with all the tasks in life.
AI holds promise in many areas, but if it is dedicated solely to removing human costs from an enterprise and gathering personal data to be returned to the market for a profit, it will not serve humanity well.
Artificial intelligence should be designed with people (consumers) in mind and with the awareness that information technologies can be designed to help or use, depending on how they are implemented.
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