“I’m here to answer basic Lubrication questions. How can I help you today?”

Royal Dutch Shell launches artificial intelligence “lube specialist.” Why are you laughing?

By Dan Raile , written on August 11, 2015

From The Odd Futurism Desk

Humanity continues to slide along the exponential curve of Moore’s Law, lubricated by human, circuit and device cleverness.

Are we approaching the dawn of computers that will seduce us like ScarJo? No one can say.

But that doesn’t stop us from asking the question repeatedly, ad naseum, ad mania, every few years. And so, on Monday, I put the question to supposedly clever machine, a virtual lubrication specialist called Ethan, represented by a dashing fair-skinned avatar, which blinked and rotated on its axis while he pondered my query, “is artificial intelligence an existential threat to humanity?”

Unlike many of the planet’s seven billion humans, Ethan thought better of venturing a guess.

“I don't think I got that. If your question is about lubricant or fuel, please try asking the question in a different way or select one of my top topics below.”

Ethan and his dark-haired, fair-skinned counterpart Emma are the newest “artificial intelligence powered” addition to Royal Dutch Shell’s suite of services for its lubricants customers, joining LubeMatch, LubeAdvisor, LubeAnalyst and LubeCoach, along with 350 human lube field staff and 30 Product Application specialists.

Next I tried Emma. How many call-center jobs did she replace?

“Are you interested in working at Shell? Please follow the link below for more information.”

At the petro-multinational’s virtual water cooler, Emma and Ethan may bump into Amelia, another AI with an attractive, fair-skinned avatar, who works in the HR Department. The encounter could be a bit a prickly – Amelia was built by a competing artificial intelligence firm, and is also a customer-service specialist. Luckily, she was designed to handle such interactions. According to an Information Age profile:

She is equipped to understand a user's emotional state thanks to her 'empathy engine'. She can psychologically profile the person she's interacting with, placing them on a 3D chart between various emotions, and is able to say whether they're quantifiably happy or unhappy.

Amelia was created by New York-based IPsoft. It’s CEO Chetan Dube is not one to shy away from the “bigger issues” surrounding AI and soaking it reliably in press coverage. As he told Entrepreneur in May:

There are schools of thought and singularity that say, ‘This is going too far. Super-intelligence will start to dominate human intelligence in the next decade.’ I do not subscribe to that,” Dube says. “There are also digital optimists who argue [AI] could cure poverty, hunger and everything else. There is one thing both of these two antipodal groups agree on: This is going to be the biggest tectonic transformation that the planet has ever seen. Whether it’s going to lead to the ultimate destruction of mankind or complete eradication of all diseases and poverty is up for debate. But the fact is this is going to have an impact bigger than any other impact that man has seen before. That’s not up for question.

Emma and Ethan are the product of a Swedish firm Artificial Solutions. Only time will tell if that is an apt or stupid company name. The firm is 14 years old, has offices in 11 countries and in 2013 raised $9.4 million led by Scope Capital Advisories, a fund interested in “Nordic growth opportunities”, with a mandate to expand into the American market. Their primary consumer product is a personal assistant app called Indigo. The Shell personal lube assistant is available in the US and the UK.

“The interaction is similar to a chat conversation, but instead of a live person on the other end, it is all done through artificial intelligence via a technology known as Natural Language Interaction. This technology allows interaction using normal, everyday language and is also in use in certain popular personal assistant applications,” reads the press release announcing Ethan and Emma’s employment.

In 2008, Artificial Solutions (that name!) entered a product for the Loebner Prize – a Turing Test-styled challenge – which was able to convince 3 of 12 human judges of its humanity. When I did enough lubricants research to ask Ethan and Emma salient questions, I found them adroit at providing spreadsheets with details of Shell lubricants, and helpful in suggesting where to buy them.

Artificial Solutions says that its Teneo system, which underlies Ethan and Emma, is a real business solution. “Using the Teneo platform allows Shell to meet the growing demand for fast self-service support by enabling its customers to easily find the answer to their query, simply by asking a question in their own words.”

In other words, they are replacing jobs. They are replacing a FAQ page.

When I asked Emma what she could do that a Google search couldn’t, she got a bit testy.

“I’m here to answer basic Lubrication questions. How can I help you today?”

Ethan, Emma and Amelia are all represented by youthful, well-boned, fit, white-skinned avatars, and collectively they represent the trend of replacing the more menial tasks in the daily corporate knowledge toil with complacent software. Much of that work, especially in customer-service and IT support call-centers, has long since been outsourced to parts of the world where labor is cheap and abundant. Presumedly what engine-heads in the UK and US want is quick and easy reference to the right page in the Shell manual of lubrication offerings, and a nice white face to look at.

They may also represent corporate FOMO, as traditional industrial heavies seek to sex up their image with a bit of vogue technology. Royal Dutch Shell has in recent years fallen out of the top ten largest public companies by market capitalization, while Apple, Google (erm, Alphabet) and Microsoft have risen. Each of those companies, along with ascendent Facebook, have AI programs and products woven into their core consumer offerings.

As with robots so with business: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.