oliver_twist_robot

You’ve all felt the frustration of trying to get a live person on the phone. “Agent” you say into the mouthpiece, and the pleasant but infuriating voice replies, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand your request.” You scream, “AGENT!!” and as if to mock you, she (actually it) says, “What are you calling about today?” You stab the zero on your keypad hoping to bypass the phone tree, and, right on cue, the Siri-esque voice fuels your anger with, “Let’s start over.”

There used to be a time when phones were always answered by a person. But as we push to automate more and more of the world around us, the option to talk to an actual human is becoming a luxury. For the past 20 years as automated phone systems became commonplace, we came to expect a robotic voice answering customer service lines. Sometimes they were even preferable. With the rise of the internet and its how-to videos, Q & A forums, and searchable FAQs, the human customer service call became the communication method of last resort. With some companies, reaching a live person is no longer even an option.

How far will all of this automated interaction go? We accept it for customer service calls but what if you were trying to reach the concierge at your hotel and you could only reach a machine? What if your child was sick and you needed to talk to a doctor and all you were offered was a website? I suspect some of you have already suffered through such experiences. This is the devil’s bargain of “efficient” human-less service. It provides no flexibility, offers no ability to solve problems outside of a narrow set of options and, most of all, it shows no compassion.

As automated service becomes the norm instead of the exception, I fear we are developing into a society where human interaction is a luxury only for those who can afford it. The poor will live in a world without human service. Their dealings will be limited to electronic bureaucrats that can only offer a limited range of solutions and answers. If their needs require anything outside of the FAQs or the options of the phone tree, they’ll have nowhere to turn since the mass infrastructure of human service will have been dismantled.

Consider what education would look like in a society divided into those who can afford human interaction and those who cannot. Students in the poorer automated class will be taught by online video and have their homework questions answered by Q & A forums. Since human teachers wouldn’t exist in this environment, parent-teacher conferences would consist of parents looking at a dashboard of their child’s progress the way we read our Google analytics.

Meanwhile, students in the wealthier, human serviced class would be taught by in-person teachers and live tutors. Perhaps this is okay for college, which is voluntary, but would such a system be acceptable for K-12 education? What would our society produce if 50 percent, 60 percent, or 70 percent of our children had no interaction with human teachers?

How about medicine? Imagine after going through a battery of standardized automated tests, a patient who could only afford the doctor-less health plan gets an email that says, “Mr. Dao, We are sorry to inform you of your late stage cancer. We will be mailing your cancer drugs in a monthly subscription box. This is an auto-generated message. Do not reply.” There’s no question it would be efficient but it doesn’t seem like a better option than having a human doctor break the bad news to you.

I understand this is the nature of progress and cost savings, but this isn’t a discussion about that. It’s a discussion about our race toward a dehumanized world in the name of efficiency. For now, the automated interactions are mostly limited to websites, mobile apps, and customer service phone calls, but as the Singularity utopians keep promising us, exponential innovation will soon automate almost everything. And when that day comes, we will likely live in a world where machines coldly serve the masses while human service, even human interaction, becomes the ultimate luxury.

[Robot chef illustration by Hallie Bateman]