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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bouncer: Who Cares Whether They're Robots or Real Humans?

Posted By on Wed, Apr 27, 2011 at 1:13 PM

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From this week's Bouncer column:

There is an enduring mystery which, no matter how much I Google, I cannot find an answer to. The mystery is this: When you are on the Comcast website and a chat window suddenly pops up and a "Customer Service Representative" asks whether he or she can assist you, is that a real person, or a computer that has been programmed to answer millions of possible questions?

Anyone who has ever read this column knows how important customer service is to me. A bar can be a complete shit shed, full of lice and vice, but if the service is good, I will give it five stars. Conversely, I tend to take bad service very personally, and will hire skinheads to firebomb any joint that dares to forget a fortune cookie.

A friend of mine was on the Comcast site the other day and the chat window popped up. He is a robotics engineer and a wiseass, so instead of flat-out asking whether the Customer Service Rep (heretofore referred to as a CSR) was indeed a human, he began the following exchange:

Him: Do you know what a Turing test is?

[Long wait for response]

Jessica: Yes, that is a test for a machine's ability to demonstrate intelligence. [This just so happens to be the Wikipedia definition, verbatim.]

Him: Do you think you passed?

Jessica: I am not a machine, which means that I will not undergo a Turing test. I am a live Comcast Sales representatve. *representative [She or "it" fixed her or its misspelling.]

Him: Sorry! And in the event you are a machine, I commend the writer. The "typo" was brilliant, Seriously, I apologize. I didn't realize you were really human.

Jessica: That is completely fine, how may I help you today?

This whole conversation sparked a lot of debate after he posted it on Facebook. We concluded that Jessica was in fact not a human, but a machine who had been programmed to believe that she was a real person à la Blade Runner. Her creators even gave her random typo capability (to err is human, after all).

I have been mentally chewing on this stuff all week (ewww, I know). It wasn't until I was ensconced in the plush red velvetness of the lounge at the Empress of China that the real question about Comcast's Live Chat service really arose: Who cares whether it is a real person? What is the difference?

The woman who greeted us at the door of the Empress gave us the same smile she probably gives to everyone. The waiter who took our order went through the same script he probably always does. I didn't make a joke to try to jolt him out of his rut, but I'm sure if I had, he would have had a stock response to tourists who are trying to be funny. (On a side note, Disneyland has this robotic response thing down pat. I was at a Princess Dinner in Fantasyland when Snow White came up to the table. "I thought you were dead!" I blurted. Without even blinking, she remained in character and assured me that it had only been an enchantment.)

... continue reading this week's Bouncer column.

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Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown, follow Katy St. Clair @BouncerSF, and like us at Facebook.com/SFAllShookDown.

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Katy St. Clair

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