Talking To A Robot

Any number of workplace discussions these days can land on the subject of automation. Will it replace people? Will jobs be cut or merely streamlined? What price will we pay, both in terms of expensive builds and expensive mistakes?

There’s even a book, Talking to Robots, by David Ewing Duncan, in which the author explores how machines are redefining humanity.

Even with all the discussion, automation marches forward. It’s not a smooth march, but it is consistently prodding us, forcing change and moving closer to home each day. We’re even happy with the convenience provided by kiosks and automated response mechanisms, and we appear to relish the freedom which automation provides.

Until we don’t. At some point, we start to get a little worried.

Oh, sure, we laugh at the Roomba error codes and the “uh-oh” sound it makes. Those of us who use computers consistently are fully used to 401 error codes, run time automation errors, and frozen screens. We may even chuckle at the voice translation errors that we receive when we let our smart phones roll to voice mail (and who doesn’t?).

But in all of this advancement toward tech solutions, there is the overriding fear of your job—you—being replaced by a machine. For now, we take solace in the fact that robots, robotics, all things automated—well, they aren’t perfect. We’ve retreated into that, even as we prepare for the decades to come when we may well be replaced.

For now, we use humor. For example, here’s a summary of an actual transaction between a human and an automated chat function.

Virtual Agent: Hi! I’m XX’s virtual agent. To get started, simply ask me a question. I am still learning, so if I can’t help you, I’ll direct you to additional resources.

Human: I need help finding the money transferred into my account.

Virtual Agent: It looks like you need help with a pending payment. Is that right?

Human: Yes…close enough.

Virtual Agent: I’m sorry, I’m not finding any pending transactions on your account in the last 60 days. Please contact us by phone to discuss this payment.

Human: I already tried that and was disconnected.

Virtual Agent: Did this help resolve the issue or question you had?

Human: No, I need more help.

Virtual Agent: I’m sorry to hear that. Our live chat agents are currently unavailable. You may be able to get help sooner by calling us or sending us an email.

Human: I tried calling and got hung up on. I need help.

Virtual Agent: I found some articles in our Help Center that might help you. Check them out! (provides links to three articles, none of which have any correlation to the problem).

Human: Your system is awful.

Virtual Agent: Our live chat agents are currently unavailable. You may be able to get help sooner by calling us or sending us an email.

Human: I’ll hold for a live agent.

Virtual Agent: Our live chat agents are currently unavailable. You may be able to get help sooner by calling us or sending us an email.

Human: I know I’m talking to a robot but really, couldn’t you do this better?

Virtual Agent: Our live chat agents are currently unavailable. You may be able to get help sooner by calling us or sending us an email.

Human: I’ll just keep writing and holding in hopes someone shows up.

Virtual Agent: Our live chat agents are currently unavailable. You may be able to get help sooner by calling us or sending us an email.

Human: Do you play card games while you’re waiting for people to respond?

Virtual Agent: Our live chat agents are currently unavailable. You may be able to get help sooner by calling us or sending us an email.

Human: Just curious what a virtual agent does with his or her time.

Virtual Agent: Our live chat agents are currently unavailable. You may be able to get help sooner by calling us or sending us an email.

Human: Still waiting for a real person.

Virtual Agent: Our live chat agents are currently unavailable. You may be able to get help sooner by calling us or sending us an email.

Human: How’s the weather there?

Virtual Agent: Our live chat agents are currently unavailable. You may be able to get help sooner by calling us or sending us an email.

Human: It’s nice fall weather here. I’m going to a cookout tonight and we’ll make s’mores. What are you doing?

Virtual Agent: Our live chat agents are currently unavailable. You may be able to get help sooner by calling us or sending us an email.

Human: I figure if you have a chat function you eventually will someone who can chat.

Virtual Agent: Our live chat agents are currently unavailable. You may be able to get help sooner by calling us or sending us an email.

Human: I’m really kind of an introvert, though, so I don’t do well with small talk.

Virtual Agent: Our live chat agents are currently unavailable. You may be able to get help sooner by calling us or sending us an email.

Human: Have they programmed you for small talk?

Virtual Agent: Our live chat agents are currently unavailable. You may be able to get help sooner by calling us or sending us an email.

Human: It’s not that hard. You ask me about my day, or comment on the weather.

Virtual Agent: Would you like to chat with a Customer Service agent? Estimated wait time is 9 minutes.

Human: Yes.

Virtual Agent: Please wait 9 minutes while I get an agent for you.

I’ll spare you the rest. Let’s just say automation has not yet reached the conversation level, at least not in this case. Customer service, in general, is only making itself worse by introducing imperfect automation…but that’s another subject.

Suffice to say, implementing our future in automation is going to be tricky, and will undoubtedly be full of unpleasant chats and customer service encounters. It’s going to take a sense of humor to figure it out. But there is no doubt it will get figured out. So let’s not wait to figure out the jobs, part, either. It at least deserves more conversation.

So, how’s the weather in your automated world? Are you an introvert, too?

  • Share: