A daunting deal with machines

If you’re the type who typically waits until the last minute to pay your bills, you likely spend a lot of time dealing with robots.

I’m that type, and well familiar with conversing with machines.

For a long time it was not my cup of tea, and I’d push my way into talking with a real person. What’s interesting is how varied the experience can be; with some companies it’s as simple as pushing “O” for operator, but for others it’s labyrinthine. They clearly prefer that you deal with the machine.

So I try to be patient, although not too long ago I found myself yelling at a machine. If you type “yelling at a robot” in Google, what you get is more about yelling robots than yelling at robots. But some day, as the pace of technology unfolds, you can imagine “yelling at a robot” leading to a link to the Mayo Clinic or some place, where you’ll encounter advice about symptoms and treatment, maybe.

In this case I’d found myself in a loop of a kind of Abbot and Costello-type exchange that went something like this:

“You appear to have answered ‘no.’ Is this correct?”

“No.”

And so on. I think I may have tried answering “yes” at one point, but by then I’d forgotten what the initial question had been, by then I was just playing with the robot, and at least was not yelling. You have to have a sense of humor because the robot sure doesn’t.

The other day instead of yelling I gave in. I was trying to make a credit card payment on the day the payment was due, but it was late in the day and the robot appeared to be dwelling in Eastern Daylight Time, the same time zone I happen to live in, and informed me the transaction would not take effect until the following day, which also meant I was going to get a late charge. Instead of yelling I entered “O” and was able to connect to a person, who informed me that while the machine was limited to Eastern Daylight Time she was capable of extending into the Pacific Daylight Time zone, clearly a superior ability. I told her I was grateful to have connected to a real person. Though I’ve tried to get over the apprehension that comes with dealing with automation, doing business with a person still comes as a relief.

I may be making an expansive interpretation by considering an automated voice system a robot. When I was a kid I envisioned watching robots sweep floors, not negotiating payments over the phone with them.

The first mention of the word “robot” was in a science fiction play from 1921 by Karel Capek (this information was culled by using Google), who based it on a Czech word for “forced labor.” The robots in the play are there to free humans from the necessity of doing work, but after a while they come to feel themselves superior and it doesn’t go well for humans.

Robots have been portrayed as both sinister and otherwise. HAL 9000 is an artificial intelligence that controls an entire spaceship, and to a villainous degree, in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Though I’m no expert, the most endearing character in the “Star Wars” universe is a little robot, R2-D2, who chirps and beeps adorably and also comes in handy when it’s time to save the day.

Maybe a little chirping and beeping would help the automated voice systems.

You’d at least be more reluctant to yell at them.

jkurz@record-journal.com (203) 317-2213



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