Intelligence is not Artificial

by piero scaruffi

Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence | Bibliography and book reviews | My book on consciousness | Contact/feedback/email
(Copyright © 2018 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

Footnote: Intelligent Customer Support as a Challenge to Human Intelligence

It is not artificial intelligence that defies human intelligence: it is software unfriendliness. Notably, "customer support" (my favorite euphemism) is reaching a level of unfriendliness that defies human intelligence... or, better, tests human intelligence. It has become a real challenge to speak with someone about a problem that you have. To speak with an operator you need to pierce through a multi-layered wall of "press this digit" and "press that digit". The reason is simple: they really want you to interact with the machine so that they can save on salaries. The machine, unfortunately, requires YOU to behave like a machine. If you are determined on speaking with a human being, you have to play a sort of videogame in which you need to avoid all the answers that will send you back to a webpage and find which sequence of answers will allow you to reach a human operator. If you need help with service X, do NOT select "service X" from the options, otherwise you'll be stuck in a conversation with an algorithm that will provide no help whatsoever. You have to find an option that will get you around the algorithm. Typically, you want to pick some silly exotic options for which most likely no algorithm has been set up. On the other side of this game there is an army of software engineers who are guessing what you are going to do in order to speak with a human being and who are trying to prevent you from doing so, i.e. they make it constantly more difficult for you to find the route to the human operator. When you sign up for a credit card or any other service, they will tell you "just go online and you can set up the feature that you need", for example set up automatic payment (of course, banks don't really want you to set up automatic payment because they want you to run huge balances on which they make money by charging you outrageous interests). You go online and spend a day trying to figure out where you can set up the feature that you want. It takes maximum concentration to find the places where you need to click in order to tell their system what to do. Sometimes it takes maximum concentration for more than one hour. If the phone rings or someone enters the room and distracts you, you probably have to restart from the beginning. It is just as complicated as proving a theorem or reading Kant. Or playing a videogame. Somewhere on the screen there's "Help" or "Contact us" but beware: if you click on those buttons you will get lost in a labyrinth of questions that will still send you back to the webpage that you cannot understand. That's the videogame that you are playing with the software developers of that "customer support" webpage. In fact, clicking on "Help" is the very wrong thing to do if you want to talk to someone: that "Help" section is precisely where the troops of software engineers have been concentrated to erect a formidable wall that will never allow you to get help.

Now most websites are being deliberately designed to make it as difficult as possible (or utterly impossible) for citizens and consumers to send comments. Ironically, clicking on "Help", "Feedback" or "Customer Support", frequently sends you to a page of FAQ, which in theory means "frequently asked questions" but, if you pronounce it like i do, it tells you how much they care about you.

In 2017 if you want to send an email to PayPal's customer service, you have to go through a series of pulldown menus. You have to select one of the options or you won't be able to do anything else. If none of the options apply to your case, it is your problem, not theirs. I found a way to send them an email only by clicking on the option "Close my Account". That is not what i needed help with, but it was the only way that i could find to send an email to their customer service.

The other game that is going on is between the user who wants simple applications to do simple things and the software engineers who are paid to complicate those applications. We are reluctant to abandon old software not because we are old-fashioned but because we are painfully aware that new releases frequently imply a decline in productivity: it takes countless mouse clicks to do what we used to do with one click (e.g. copying a text into Microsoft Word: Paste, Paste Special, Unformatted Text, OK).

How any of this relates to Artificial Intelligence is difficult to grasp. It is simply a game of endurance between two arch-enemies: the customer who needs customer support and the software engineer who designs the customer-support system so that it will minimize customer support by (expensive) human specialists. The problem is that, increasingly, the human "specialists" are no better than the algorithms: the human specialist that you finally get on the line is likely to simply recite the rules, and often in a language that only an algorithm would understand, asking you to make all the choices. You have won the game and got to speak with a human being instead of an algorithm, but only to find out that the human being, like in zombie movies, has become an algorithm.

Back to the Table of Contents

Purchase "Intelligence is not Artificial")
Back to Cognitive Science | My book on consciousness | My reviews of books | Contact