Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Ghost in the Machine

Before we work on artificial intelligence why don't we do something about natural stupidity? ~Steve Polyak

There's an ad on TV currently that shows some poor guy trying to get through to his credit card company. He's connected to one of those voice-recognition systems that's making him chat with a robot. Ultimately, after answering a slew of questions, he gets connected to a human being but promptly loses him as the train he's riding enters a tunnel.
That ad was pretty funny until the other day.
The other day we had a drive fail in one of our servers. I know, I appear to be breaking my rule about not talking about work. I guarantee, however, that none of what follows is critical of my co-workers or my superiors – particularly my superiors who are a swell bunch of people who would never take anything I wrote amiss, but there's no need to take unnecessary risks, now is there? So everything's cool, boss, really.
Now where was I? Oh, yes, the hard drive failed. We've had a long relationship with our server vendor, with relatively few problems and good response to the ones we've had. With a lot of servers and a ton of hard drives, it will be necessary to replace a part now and then. So, calling them is no big deal, and I pretty much had the button sequence down : “If you are a government entity, press ... If you need technical support, press ... If you are calling about servers, press ...” Three presses, less than a minute, and, bingo, I'm talking to a living breathing person. At least, I was until this past week.
Seems the geniuses who make such decisions at this outfit decided that a voice recognition system would somehow make things more efficient or friendlier or ... heck, I haven't a clue what they were thinking. I guess they've got a lot of money lying around to blow on changing their phone systems. Anyway, now I had to listen to little speeches for each item. I couldn't just hit a digit to bypass listening to an entire menu, because each item had to be answered “yes” or “no”. After four or five minutes of this, I ended up exactly where I normally ended up in less than a minute: Telling a representative what my service tag number was.
This is better?
It got worse. When the new drive came in, it didn't have the usual paperwork for returning the broken part. No problem, because I just called the technician directly (he had kindly provided a direct dial number to avoid talking to the robot) who set up a pickup.
Except that the shipping company screwed up. No big deal, the tech had given me a the shipping company's phone number. I dialed it, and, lo and behold, a voice starts asking questions. I swear it was the same voice. In this case, I had about six choices and had to say a key word. Except that none of the choices corresponded to “talk to someone about a screw up that we did.” Fortunately, I was able to crack through to a person by hitting the “0” key a couple of times.
I don't know who thinks this is better than the already-annoying menus and key presses. It takes longer, and certainly doesn't help the process any. I have some theories, though, on why the companies are using this annoying technology.
1. People have become so illiterate that they can't read the numbers on a phone. They can dial because they match the little symbols for “1”, “2”, and so on with the number in the instructions. Once they've reached the site, they can't decipher that “Press one” means press the key with the 1 on it.
2. People are intimidated about have to call for customer service, so, instead of having to follow complex instructions like “Press the pound sign when you're done”, they can have a little chat with a machine first.
3. People are so stupid that they think they're talking to a real person.
4. Companies are trying to make it completely impossible to ever actually talk to a human being.
Personally, I'm leaning heavily toward number 4. Considering the ridiculous terms and conditions consumers are asked – no, make that forced – to accept in order to do business with anyone, it's next to impossible to return defective products (particularly in the software world). If they're not going to help us anyhow, why waste time talking to us in the first place?
I am going to exact my revenge, at least on the server company. The next time I've struggled through to a human being, the conversation will go like this:
Vendor: Please give me your service tag number so I can route your call.
Me: It sounds like you want my service tag number. If this is correct, please say “yes”. If it is not correct, please say “no”.
Vendor: I'm sorry?
Me: I didn't understand that reply. If you want my service tag number, please say “yes.” If this is not correct please say “no”. If you've had enough of this silliness and will tell your supervisor that the voice recognition system should be scrapped, say “uncle.”
I probably won't get any tech support, but I'll feel better.

Postscript:  The server company dumped the whole thing within a few weeks.  Evidently, I wasn't the only one trying to scream into a phone in a noisy server room.


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