SETTLING FOR A VIRTUAL HUMAN

I once answered a business telephone line with our company greeting and I was very focused and perfect—perhaps a little too focused and perfect. The lady on the other end paused and then asked, “Are you a real person?” I laughed and assured our customer that I was indeed a real person.

We have all been there one way or another. It can be frustrating when you don’t know if the voice on the other end of the line is a human or a virtual human using so-called artificial intelligence. But I think that the frustration goes deeper than that.

Whenever we are prevented from speaking with a real person our customer experience degrades, however slight. That’s another reason why Dilbert got it right with the character “Mordac, the preventer of IT services.” Too often, companies seem to be trying to prevent a positive customer experience. Perhaps that is just one of the reasons why we see such an effort to refine AI. We want AI to replicate the human-contact experience in all aspects so that the customer experience does not degrade, however slight. The idea is that if AI can handle the customer’s request efficiently and convincingly, then the organization saves money and a positive customer experience is preserved. Everyone wins, at least in theory.

As much as I understand that conceptually, scientifically, psychologically, and commercially, I remain somehow unsatisfied and of course that directly affects my customer experience. It’s both an overt and a subtle situation, but it’s definitely not good. Ashlee Vance very accurately captures the experience (“Life, or Something Like It” Bloomberg Businessweek. September 11, 2017, pp. 42–47):

Even successful customer-relations experiences with chatbots, ones where the bot gives the right answer, tend to leave people dissatisfied because they feel like they’ve been pawned off on an inferior being.” (p. 46)

Technology is a wonderful thing. I value it for all its magnificent benefits and I continuously use it to the max. Yet we are human beings and we crave human interaction, especially during those moments when we have a pressing issue to resolve.

AI can do many things because it is the culmination of technology. Nevertheless, it remains technology no matter how intensely we might try to convince ourselves (and our customers) that it is human. Note the quote: “because they feel like they’ve been pawned off on an inferior being.” And what does that do to the customer experience?


ARTIFICIAL WHAT

Artificial intelligence is happening all around us, yet I often muse that the term is an oxymoron and perhaps you have to be a moron to believe the term. How can something that is by definition artificial truly be intelligent? Well, I suppose it all comes down to how you choose to define “intelligence.” You might have a very high standard for the definition while another person might have a very low standard while others are happy somewhere in the middle. This is important because exactly how you choose to set that standard drives how this so-called AI is crafted, evaluated, and used.

My problem with AI is that fundamentally AI is driven by code. Code of course refers to the particular programming language and precisely how it is constructed to handle the required tasks. And of course code by fundamental definition is rigidly deterministic.

  • 2 + 2 = 4
  • A creates B which creates C which yields D.

Using these bits of code and assembling them into massively complex hierarchies eventually creates computer behaviors that appear to replicate human behaviors. When that occurs we are quick to declare the marvelous manifestation of AI.

My problem however is that the human always sees the bigger picture. It is the bigger picture that is not limited to the code. Therefore it is the human perspective that is intrinsically superior to AI.

Because this is true, computer scientists are ever pursuing increasingly complex coding to strive unceasingly to replicate that vital, unique, true human perspective. The problem remains that although this is scientifically (and yes, practically) a noble pursuit, it remains a modern version of a Zeno’s paradox; although you come increasingly close to the destination, it is a destination never reached. (Yes, I understand we have “solutions” to Zeno’s paradox. Nevertheless, the image of Zeno’s paradox is what illustrates our challenge.)

So the ultimate destination is that we so completely code to replicate so perfectly the human thought process that someday we manifest an AI that convinces us it is human, thereby passing the Turing test. Well, I’m still waiting, and I have a feeling I will be waiting a very long time. And while computers might be infinitely patient, I am not.


DESIGN WHERE IT COUNTS

In looking at products and services, I constantly keep an eye on design. How well or how poorly the product or service displays design says a lot about the business. It also will endear me or repulse me. When a product or a service is well designed, it shows, you experience it, and it just makes sense. When a product or a service is not well designed, it shows, you experience it, and it just doesn’t make sense. Whether good or for bad, design reveals itself.

How often have you stayed at a hotel and the design just didn’t make sense? I think we’ve all been to that hotel a time or two. It was not an enjoyable experience. When the design is not right, the entire customer experience is wrong because design colors everything.

Recently I stayed at a hotel that had been built within the past year . . . and it showed in many good ways. Someone gave intense thought, planning, and analysis to design. Many things, both little and big, stood out to me:

  • The well-located, easy accommodations for travelers with technology.
  • The carefully thought-out logical layout of the room.
  • The seamless ease of using the keycard system.
  • The strategic size and organization of the bathroom.
  • The dimensioning, operation, and construction of the shower door.
  • The ergonomics of the furniture.

I could go on and on. The point is that many aspects of my stay greatly satisfied my eye for design. My customer experience was enhanced immensely and my overall comfort and efficiency ranked very high. Design reveals itself, especially to the customer.

How happy are you with the design of your products or services? What does your design say about you and your organization? And most important of all (where it really counts), is your design helping or hurting the customer experience?


ROBO-NEXT IS ALREADY HERE

It comes as no surprise that anything that can be automated physically or intellectually is being automated. The legal field is no exception. When you consider that attorneys don’t come cheap, most of us would agree that anything that improves their efficiency is a very good thing. Jason Koebler summarizes how artificial intelligence has already been changing the legal profession (“Rise of the Robolawyers: How Legal Representation Could Come to Resemble TurboTax” The Atlantic. April 2017, pp. 26–27):

For years, artificial intelligence has been automating tasks—like combing through mountains of legal documents and highlighting keywords—that were once rites of passage for junior attorneys. The bots may soon function as quasi-employees. In the past year, more than 10 major law firms have ‘hired’ Ross, a robotic attorney powered in part by IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence, to perform legal research. Ross is designed to approximate the experience of working with a human lawyer: It can understand questions asked in normal English and provide specific, analytic answers.” (p. 26)

Given litigation’s patterns and statistics, algorithms’ powers, and increasingly sophisticated coding, the robo-lawyer might well be able to handle most civil cases except for the highly complex ones. So what’s robo-next? Robo-doctors, robo-architects, robo-engineers, robo-therapists, robo-waiters, robot-hairdressers, robo-plumbers, robo-writers? And how much will people tolerate concerning the customer experience? Even a canned response that makes logical sense or is technically correct sometimes just feels sterile and unsatisfying.

Just because you can do something via robot does not automatically mean it is always the best idea. When is a customer experience that only involves one human better than a customer experience that involves two humans? Does it truly matter?

Well, as you can see, I have my doubts. But then again, if I have doubts, then that really wouldn’t make much sense now would it? Listen, James Meadows will be back next week. Just do me a favor and please don’t tell him that I wrote his blog post today. He might not appreciate that.


LABOR DAY DESIRES

As we approach our nation’s annual engagement of the Labor Day holiday, let’s remember all the things it should bring to mind. The very first Labor Day occurred in 1882 and it became a federal holiday in 1894. Its purpose was to celebrate work by not working, and to give workers a nice break between Independence Day and Thanksgiving.

If you are fortunate enough to have a job, then be thankful for that. Many people are searching for employment. Others battle various physical or psychological ailments that undermine their ability to work.

If you are currently searching for a job, then be thankful you have the opportunity to reinvent yourself. Many times a closed door of opportunity leads to a new door of better opportunity. Meanwhile, take advantage of the extra time unemployment provides to do some serious introspection, self-assessment, and career reengineering. Your professional growth depends on it.

Don’t forget that you also need to take some time off to recharge your batteries. Rest and recreation help us to be better workers. “Off time” and “on time” have a symbiotic relationship. Our off time recharges our batteries for on time. Our on time challenges us sufficiently so that we appreciate our off time.

Finally, pay attention to the rhythm of the calendar. Shortly after our celebration of labor, we move toward the more major holidays of our nation. It’s great to celebrate labor and the professional life. However, let’s spend equal time exploring and celebrating personal time and the personal life. Here are some good questions to get you started:

  • What kind of a person are you becoming?
  • Do you feel fulfilled and happy?
  • What is the true source of your inner stability and strength?
  • How are your relationships?
  • Do you value the things that matter most?

These are the kinds of questions we should never forget because they affect us and others both at work and away from work. So if you are not happy with the answers, then why not take on a new homework assignment to figure out why? That would be labor well spent this Labor Day!