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thoughts of robots

February 16th, 2006 | 5 min read

By Keith E. Buhler

If I call into my banking institution today, I hear a friendly-sounding lady answer the phone, and say “Welcome to Wells Fargo. To access your accounts, press, or say, “one.” To open a new account, press, or say, “two…” And so on. If I press 1, she kindly says, “Thank you. To expedite the handlng of your call, please enter your account number, followed by the pound key.” She asked me nicely, said please, and even explained the purpose of her asking… After I enter the account number (5114-30-5337*) she thanks me again.

The convention of automated “receptionists” has already taken hold of most large corporations and businesses… the convention of automated receptionists who respond not only to touch tone commands but voice commands is slowly setting in.

Certain credit card companies are striving more and more to imitate a casual, friendly conversation between you and the “customer service rep” on the other line. They hire professional voice-actors with calm, melodious voices to replace dry, formal, lines like “Your number could not be recognized. Please try again” with the more colloquial “Hm, I couldn’t get that to work. Can you say the number again for me?” To which you respond by speaking into the microphone.

*Had you there for a second… :)

Now, I am not disturbed by robots. I do not mind science fiction movies depicting the end of humanity and the rise of the superintelligent machines; I have little to no fear that we will ever “make them too smart.” Nor am I morally or artistically opposed, in principle, to the production of high-correspondance imitations of people and animals in things like wax sculpture, Computer Generated Imagery, or (eventually) 3D holograms.

I am disturbed, however, by the advent of “conversations” with automated machines.

I am disturbed for two reasons. One, because of the automated “person” who must be created; Two, because of the effect on me, as a person, while talking to a well-developed mechanical fascimile of a soul.

1. The mimetic machine, let’s call her Teller… What’s wrong with her? Come, you may say, she is a wonderful invention. She is designed to make incoming callers feel comfortable, patient, calm, and happy. She talks with an extreme form of kindliness, (perhaps verging on ingratiating.) She repeats requests only with great apologies, she asks for information only very politely. Is this so wrong?

Beyond this (what is even more valuable from the company’s point of view,) her lovely voice and indefatiguable patience apply to every single caller, any season, any time of day — she never changes moods, never has an “off day,” never even grows old. In this way, she is like unto a Telereceptionist Goddess, ever distributing her grace and love to thousands of customers per day without tiring, without pay, without need for thanks.

Fine and well. There is a problem, however. She is not a goddess. “She” is not even a she.

Though to be a better-than-human machine is to seem like a god, in reality, it is to be worse than a beast.

There is an image in Steven Spielburgs well-disliked “AI,” that captures this beastliness beautifully. A family is sitting around the table, eating and enjoying light, pleasant conversation. They seem normal, except for the fact that we know their little boy, David, is a “mecha,” a robot boy. Mom and dad exchange a laugh over some anecdote that dad has just relayed. They glance over at David, who is peering at them with the same, frozen expression of childlike wonder and unflinching affection. It is a bit spooky that he is not “joining in their reindeer games.” Their smiles droop a bit, and they return to their dinner. Suddenly, David starts laughing maniacally. His mouth opens wide, his eyes remain fixed in that solid expression of innocence, but his mouth and body blurt out a rude imitation of human laughter. The parents are startled, and try to wait it out while David’s programming tells him when it is appropriate and human to stop laughing — which he does, just as abruptly as he began.

David’s near-humanity makes him like a beast — it is because he is perpetually, unflinchingly angelic that he is very like a devil.

The makers of “mechas”, (in AI), and the people in charge of automated teller machines (at major banks) might respond with the same objection: “But if you make a machine that sounds like a machine, people don’t like it. They feel that the experience is cold, mechanical, unnatural.” Then they stop using the automated service, or they call in and hit “0” to talk to an operator, and our costs skyrocket.”

I can sympathize with this. I do not run a bank (or a robot production company) and so I do not as heavily feel the weight of these costs.

However, the more and more humanish we make automated teller machines, the more pleasant they are at first, but to the same degree that they are pleasant, they have the potential to be potential horrible and terrifying, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, saying it over and over and over and over and over with no feeling, no human awareness, no human sympathy.

Spend enough time with the Los Angeles City automated teller (a system wherein there is simply no option to talk to an operater) and you will begin to feel what it is like… it is lost in a city full of robots, all of whom are answering your pleas for help or direction with a vaguely friendly, unrelentless, not-quite relevent piece of advice.

The second reason I am disturbed is because of the effect on humans that takes place from interacting with this voice-images. The first time I tried “saying” my credit card number rather than dialing it in, I immediately noticed this difference: I don’t have to be nice.
Maybe I am the only one who feels bad for these poor phone bank people and tries to be cheerful with them over the phone, but I realized that, when “talking to” a machine, there is no way in heaven or hell that I can be rude, or distracted, or anything else for that matter… what am I going to do, hurt their feelings?

The same applies for signs at the edge of fastfood restaurants that say “Thank you.” Who is saying thank you? What of them is in that statement? Am I supposed to say, “You’re welcome?”

Human speech is for communication; it is not for automated pattern recognition, programmed into a chipset by some other human person.
The advent of automated tellers such as these, as it becomes more pervasive, will not effect the robots to whom we are “speaking,” but it will have unfortunate consequences of the way humans interact with other humans. Using speech to push buttons on a human-sounding machine will begin to form habits (over long periods of time) of mechanical, unnatural, unfeeling modes of speaking.

It will also encourage talented people to invest their time and energy in creating new and ever more convincing humanish representatives, something which is interesting and fruitful, artistically, but potentially horrible and frightful, pragmatically.