Rise of the Chatbot

Courtesy Piqsels, CC0 1.0



When you speak with someone on the street, you usually know relatively quickly when they are self-interested, when they do not have answers, when they are delusional, stalling, or wandering off topic. That is, when they are full of it.

Similarly, corporate communication is mostly propaganda, noncommunication designed to force people into strict channels of belief and behavior for a financial agenda. The cynicism and clutter of it is unavoidable now and has been for many years.

But big corporations that promised, in carefully designed marketing campaigns, that they cared about us created a new problem: how to deal with the great unwashed, 24/7?

(An industry website says, “82% of consumers say that getting instant responses is important when contacting brands.”)

Customer service representatives have to be paid, and I suspect personal conversations encourage more calls, leading to more cost and even unwanted resolutions. Companies now often do not list on their websites the names of company officers or employees, let alone their phone numbers or email addresses. Sometimes you cannot even know where the company is in the world. They have become impregnable commercial fortresses.

Automated messages on “help” lines, and prompts that may not have fit your issues, were but a crude step in gaining distance from customers, since they often led to human contact. Increasingly, if there is a conversation to be had, whether by text or audio, it is artificial intelligence on the other end of the line. One site says that this year “90% of health and banking queries are expected to be handled by chatbots….”

The best I can say about AI chatbots used for customer service is that we are in its uncanny valley. I was stuck with a messenger chatbot recently, on a business trip, trying to redeem points for a hotel stay through my usual online booking service. It quickly felt off. It kept saying it would need “three to four minutes,” an oddly specific amount of time, to consider each step of our conversation, and showed no response to my growing frustration. When I finally said I had used the booking service all over the world, and was it kidding me now, it just got confused.

(In the uncanny valley of language, as well as that of the visual in film, “the 1 percent that’s not quite right…suddenly looms up enormously rendering the entire effect somehow creepy and monstrously alien….”)

Hilariously, another industry website trumpets, “Nearly 40% of internet users worldwide prefer interacting with chatbots instead of virtual agents.” That should probably read, “Only about a third of people can stand dealing with them, and those 30-some percent need only basic information.”

I do wonder if AI will learn quickly enough to solve these problems before corporations begin to be held accountable for their poor (or non-)communication. Recently my son had a medical issue that was not yet quite an emergency. I called my health insurance company to confirm benefits and got stuck in a long series of meaningless prompts by AI voices. I finally understood the limbo could be escaped by asking for an “advocate,” not “customer service,” though “advocate” was pronounced “addofcut,” with no syllabic stresses. Even then I first had to listen to a stern reminder that I would be asked to take a survey on my experience when my business with them was done, so stay on the line.

(There used to be a rumor that if you cussed on automated calls, it put you right through to a human. I can confirm this is not true in all cases.)

On the way to the medical center, my phone’s Siri, a different sort of chatbot, could not distinguish among the two-dozen, similarly-named listings under the medical center’s corporate name, many of which were in remote locations and useless to us. Wrong directions, through Maps, combined with a dearth of full-service hospitals in my area, and urgent care clinics that cannot perform many treatments or tests, could have become a dangerous situation. Not that a corporation, let alone its bots, would care.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.