San Francisco Institute of Possiblity


Fun with Robots

Any minute now you'll mistake this for your mother.

Any minute now you’ll mistake this for your mother.

The news that IBM’s supercomputer “Watson” will be put to use for business call centers got me thinking.

How is it that we’re so used to dealing with machines for everything in our daily lives?  I get how everything got so automated so quickly, but how did we adjust to it so fast?

There’s a Cacophony style story about this in Chicken John’s “Book of the Is.”  It goes like this:

I found a drivers license on Mission street one day. Just the license. From a guy in Santa Rosa, about 50 miles north of SF. I put it in my wallet, thinking I’d drop it in a mailbox. But then I had a better idea. I was doing a bus trip that night. I take people bowling after the Dr. Hal Show. I also was in possession of a robot suit. Arms like ventilation tubes. Silver box for a head. Totally stupid. We went bowling in Santa Rosa. At 2:00 AM, we went to this suburban neighborhood with my giant bus, suited Michelle up in the robot suit and sent her lumbering for his door. Knock knock. Knock knock.

“Who is it?” the sleepy voice said through the closed door.

“Robot,” Michelle stated in a monotone mechanical voice.

“What do you want?”

“I have your drivers license.” Stated in perfect android.

“Oh, terrific!” He opens the door smiling to find a silver gloved hand presenting him with his lost ID. “Thank you robot! 

I love everything about that – especially the fact that it all comes off as so natural.  But it isn’t natural, is it?  For all that we’ve all assumed that we’d spend our elder years serviced by android sex-bots … because if the internet teaches us anything, it’s that the android sex-bots are coming … we’re remarkably blasé about replacing the people in our lives with things.

Aren’t we?

It makes me wonder if there’s a Cacophony style event yet to be had.  What if …

Here me out here, what if …

… a bunch of us got together and started calling banks, credit card companies, politicians, and every customer service line we could find.  We make our way past the automated system (we shout “speak to a person!” into the system until they put us in that line) and then, when we get someone on the other end, start talking like this:

“Hello!  I have a question about my … account balance!  If you can help me, please press 1!”

“Yes!  I have a question about your … product or service!  Please say the name of your product or service clearly into the phone.  Or, to reach the main menu, press 9.”

Keep it going for as long as we can.  How long do you think we could go?  How would they react, especially if they got a lot of calls like that?

I’m just asking.

If we’re going to be surrounded by robots and Watson and AI anyway, we might as well make them part of the joke.

That said, I’m sure somebody has a better idea.  Let’s do that, too.

See you at the Castro.

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