In 2016 I read a brilliant book by Alec Ross entitled “The industries of the Future”. The author worked as Senior Advisor for Innovation to the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton & during his tenure travelled to 41 countries around the world exploring the latest advances in technology and how this will shape our economic future. The book covers a range of topics including Robotics, Genomics, Cybersecurity, Big Data and Blockchain/Bitcoin. I can’t recommend his book enough. It’s a great read and a real eye opener even for someone like myself who has been working in technology for nearly 30 years now.
The first Chapter in the book entitled “Here Come the Robots” which describes the history of robotics, the geo-robotic landscape and how robots are being humanised. There is also an overview of when Singularity might be achieved. Singularity is the theoretical point in time when artificial intelligence will match or surpass human Intelligence. Remember in the Terminator movie that once singularity is achieved; a self-aware computer system decides to launch war on humans!
What really caught my attention whilst reading this chapter was not so much the fear of what Robots might do after Singularity occurs but actually the attitude of consumers in different countries to robots or artificial intelligence and how this might relate to the latest “shiny object” Bots.
East vs West
“As Robotics starts to spread, the degree to which countries can succeed in the robot era will depend in part on culture – on how readily people accept robots into their lives. Western and Eastern cultures are highly differentiated on how they view robots”
“The Ancient Shinto Religion, practised by 80 per cent of Japanese, includes beliefs in animism, which holds beliefs that both objects and human beings have spirits. As a result, Japanese Culture tends to be more accepting of robot companions as actual companions than in Western culture, which views robots as soulless machines”
“The threat of humanity creating things we cannot control pervades Western Literature, leaving a long history of cautionary tales. Prometheus was condemned to an eternity of punishment for giving fire to humans. When Icarus flew too high, the sun melted his ingenious waxed wings and he fell to his death. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr Frankenstein’s grotesque creation wrecks havoc and ultimately leads to its creators death”
“This fear does not pervade Eastern culture to the same extent. The cultural dynamic in Japan is representative of culture through much of East Asia, enabling the Asian robotics industry to speed ahead, unencumbered by cultural baggage”
What are Bots?
Facebook opened up its Messenger Platform recently letting any business create Chatbots “Bots” to interact with the 900 million users of Messenger. Since then there have been daily stories about how Bots are going to turn Customer Service on it’s head.
There are two types of bots currently available to consumers:
The first type uses interactive scripts & APIs on messaging platforms to enable simple transactions like buying a tShirt or Flowers. This is what Facebook announced at F8: Brands can send customers Transactional Messages, containing multiple choice options to facilitate self-service transactions such as supplying information or conducting commerce.
The second type use Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques to actually engage in dialogue with consumers and answer questions in a Conversational format. Problem is that the AI powering these Bots is already available & it doesn’t work reliably. Think Cortana (Microsoft) or Siri (Apple) or automated phone customer service implementations.
With any new technology there are going to be some war stores as they gain wider adoption & the techniques are fine tuned.
Microsoft’s bot Tay is an interesting example of how immature this technology is currently. Unfortunately (or fortunately) a number of people taught Tay how to say racist, sexist and generally awful things.
What about the Humans?
With all the news about Bots and the mad Gold Rush to build the killer Bot, I wonder if we have all lost sight of the Forest for the trees?
If you go back to my introduction and the perception of Robots amongst consumers in the West, I wonder if we have the cart before the horse here? What are we trying to achieve? Well if it’s better customer service and better interactions with these same customers, can anyone really explain to me how automating this process with Bots is going to achieve these goals?
Here is a simple question to all the Bot fans out there? Do you like to deal with the automated phone customer service help line? Do you like having to choose from a range of options to only find that you have gone down the wrong path & have to start again? Or do you really love the part where he automated options don’t cover your option and instead you need to talk about what you want & then hope that there is a 0.01% chance that the machine at the other end knows what you are talking about?
I for one DO NOT.
People like to deal with People. It’s that simple.
If you want to get a good example of how a Human can provide the edge in customer service then have a look at this interaction from Tesco on Twitter: Lad Receives Epic Response From Tesco After Frivolous Ice-Cream Complaint.
Does anyone seriously expect this type of response will come from a Bot?
As Alec Ross highlights in “The industries of the Future” there is inherent in Western culture a suspicion of robots. Bots and AI are an extension of this and I believe the same dynamic exists. We already see this with automated phone systems. Do you know anyone who likes them? I don’t. Why would this be any different with Bots? As the Tay example illustrates so eloquently, this technology has a way to go before it will be accepted in the mainstream.
The key to great customer service is to be human. Show you are human, treat humans like humans and you may be surprised with the reception you get!
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