Monday, November 24, 2014
Will The AI Apocalypse Be Worse Than Customer Service?
I am a survivalist and make no excuses for it. I have posted my experiences in the cold weather and nearly freezing to death. I am sure that is part of what makes a survivalist. That combined with an early recognition that men often don't make rational decisions. They are capable of making irrational decisions on a grand scale. I was in grade school during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Being in a small town, we escaped all of the duck and cover exercises that kids in the big city went through. But paranoia about the Russians, nuclear war, and radioactive fallout was always there. I worked for the town library in the 1970s and found out it had been the local nuclear fallout shelter. I spent days clearing out steel 30 gallon drums that were supposed to double as water and waste containers in a fallout emergency. In those days before atmospheric nuclear tests were banned, I can still recall a radioactive cloud passing over our town. Experts from the state university were on television talking about Strontium-90 in the fallout and how that could end up in milk products. My grandfather picked up on that and referred to it as "Strawberry-90". He was somewhat of a radical, predicting that there was going to be a "revolution" at some point as the ultimate solution to a corrupt government. Survivalism may have genetic determinants.
I was surprised when Stephen Hawking came out earlier this year and said that artificial intelligence (AI) represented a threat to humans. I have seen all of the Terminator films and the Sarah Connor Chronicles. As expected, any tales of a band of zealots surviving against all odds appeals to me. But then it seemed that this was more than a cultural and artistic effort. One of the arguments by Bostrom suggests that the survival of all of the animals on the planet depends on the animal with the highest intelligence - homo sapiens. If a machine intelligence was developed one day that surpassed human intelligence it would follow that the fate of humans would depend on that machine intelligence. There are competing arguments out there that suggest a model where the AI interests and human interests would compete politically. Can you imagine how humans would fare in our current political systems? A lot of the experts suggest that we won't have to imagine battling robots in human form and that makes sense. It is clear that there are thousands of cyber attacks against our infrastructure every day. Imagine what a concentrated AI presence unencumbered by sociopathy or patriotism could do?
Imagining the battlefield of the future scenes from any Terminator film or same-themed video game, I decided this morning that you don't need a high tech approach to wreak havoc among the populace and drain their resources. You only need Customer Service. The concept needs to be refined to modern customer service. Even in the early days of the Internet, you could talk to a fellow human and they would hang in there with you until the problem was solved. I can recall calling Gateway Computers for an out-of-the-box problem back in the 1990s. The technical assistance rep and I completely disassembled and reassembled my PC over the next 2 hours. And the end result was that it worked perfectly for the next 5 years. I doubt that anything remotely that heroic happens today.
Twenty one days ago I downloaded graphics software from Amazon. I am an Amazon Prime customer and order just about everything from them. I am not a stockholder and my only interest is in getting things that nobody else stocks as soon as possible. I had previously downloaded software from them and everything went well. This time, I got an activation code and no serial number. I complained to customer service and got an e-mail saying we will give you your money back but for the serial number problem you need to contact the manufacturer. To back up a minute, I have no idea how I got that e-mail through to Amazon and could not replicate what I did in a hundred tries. The obstructionist beauty that underlies all telephone queues and Internet sites is that it is very clear that they are not really designed to get you through to anyone. It is a maze of dead ends and non answers. At many of the dead ends you are polled: "Was this page helpful?". So far I have not found a single page that was.
The dead ends at the computer graphics software site were even more formidable. In order to contact customer service I had to set up an account. After doing that I needed a serial number. Of course that was my question in the first place. How can I ask about getting a serial number when I need a serial number to ask the question? It seemed like the ultimate dead end. Amazon did send me a customer service number for the software company. This number was not available on the company's web site. In calling the number, their queue provided 4 options none of which applied to me. It gave options for order numbers that started with different numbers and I had an Amazon number that did not fit any of the choices. Just like my previous adventure in medical diagnostic queues - I picked one. A scratchy recording of bad electronic music started playing. It was interrupted every minute by a worse electronic voice telling me how important my call was and how I would be forwarded to a customer service rep. That went on for half an hour and then the voice said: "We are sorry but there is no one here to take your call. Please leave a message with your number and we will get back to you?"
That was hours ago. Given the attitude projected by this company, I am not holding my breath on the return call. I have 1 week left to try to activate software that I paid over $400 for. There is no solution in sight and it does not appear anyone is even interested in solving the problem, except me. I can get my money back - but the whole point of this is that I really want to work with that software.
Implications for the AI Apocalypse? It doesn't take much to defeat Internet dependent humans and deplete their resources. I have actually taken PTO to try to accomplish this.
I don't think there will be a shot fired in the AI Apocalypse of the future. No intense battles between humans and cyborgs. No Doomsday Weapon.
Just a low tech endless loop of customer service dead ends.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Supplementary 1: Photo credit here is FEMA. It is an open access copyright free photo per their web site.
Supplementary 2: My customer service problem was resolved today (on Tuesday November 25, 2014). The final solution was given by Amazon and they deserve the credit for resolving this problem. I don't think that detracts from noting the overall trend of decreasing support and what that implies for IT in healthcare and the culture in general.