Friday, May 18, 2007

What is the sound of two bots chatting?

I find this link utterly fascinating. I didn't realize that I was guilty of attributing more intelligence to systems than is actually there, but reading these conversations it's hard not to imagine that there is something more going on than simple decision-making based on the last typed sentence.

The chatbot phenomenon is permeating into our lives in ways you may not even realize. Been to KFC lately? The voice at the drive-thru - the one that says, "Hi! Welcome to KFC! Would you like to try our tasty bucket of insert food here or a delicious side of insert food here today?" - is totally different from the one that tells you your total is $5.75 and please pull through. The first is peppy and cheerful, the second is soft, and usually surly. Oftentimes they aren't the same sex.

A few months ago, when I had so much trouble with Amp'd Mobile, I had my first known experience with a customer service chatbot (except for some early interaction with ELIZA). After a couple of chipper replies to my heated questions, I knew I was not dealing with a real person. This is the problem with chatbot programs used for customer service - I fear that the places with the worst customer service will implement chatbots and call them customer service, when in fact they allow bad companies to continue to be bad. Don't want to deal with customers? Fine - implement a chatbot. This isn't to say that customer service chatbots can't be used effectively in situations where customers may ask the same questions over and over again. But there must always be an option of dealing with a live person. I also think that a company has a obligation to notify their customers that they are talking with an automated entity. If I ask a chatbot if they are a live person, that answer should be a definitive NO.

A couple weeks after the Amp'd incident, while on the phone with AT&T trying to straighten out a problem with my bill, I was transferred to someone whose responses were so chatbot-like - so cheerful and chipper and clear - that I said to my husband, "I don't think this is a real person..." The person on the other end of the phone heard me and said that they were indeed a real person. I was shocked. I'm sure AT&T has since fired that individual for being too helpful.

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