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Bouncer: Who Cares Whether the Comcast Chats Are Real? 

Wednesday, Apr 27 2011
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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.)

As we waited for our fizzy water and Scorpion to arrive, my companion and I took in the decor. Have you ever wondered where Steve McQueen took his dates when he wasn't racing Dodge Chargers all over town? Right here, folks. The Empress of China is stuck in 1973's answer to the Han Dynasty. To get to this place, you have to take the elevator from the lobby, which in itself looks like Charlie Chan's water closet. From there, you emerge into the MSG-laced boudoir of Madame Dragon's Opium Den. Should you choose to dine, your choices are stock: sweet and sour pork, Mongolian beef, and egg rolls. This makes it easier for the robots, who do not have to try and differentiate or work in abstraction.

We got some wontons in the bar, and the busboy dropped a fork on the way to our table. This could have been programmed into his switchboard, set to occur every 35th attempt.

I brought up the whole Turing test/Comcast representative thing to my friend, who said that she had also come into contact with the Chat Cyborg and wondered whether it was a real person. "My boyfriend started talking dirty to it," she said, dipping her fried dough in hot mustard. "He asked it if his floppy could be made hard or something."


Again the question arose: Who cares whether it is a real person? Actually, who cares whether our waiter was a real person? He was a mu shu pork disseminator, and that was what we were paying him for, goddamnit.

All of this brings me to my final point: I have always thought it incredible that texting and chat have given way to something much more impressive: real conversation in real time, voice to voice! We are going backward, people. Why do we think it is so amazing that we can type words in real time when a telephone is so much more amazing?

"Deeeep, man," said my friend, clearly ready to move on to the next subject.

When I got home, I again Googled "Comcast Chat Real Person?" and got no good answers, just a bunch of funny posts from other people who had screwed with the CSRs. I must conclude with an I Don't Know, which is something a computer would never do. That way you can be assured that I am a real person and not a replikant. Sorry, *replicant.


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Katy St. Clair

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