Saturday, November 17, 2007

Friendly Machines

I guess I don't like machines to act like people.

I'm flying out today to visit my dad for a few days, then I'm taking a flight to visit my sister and her family for the rest of the week. Then I'm flying back home.

I'm not too wild about flying. It's not that I'm afraid the plane will crash and everyone on board will tumble to their deaths -- it's more that I don't like being crammed into a seat and having to worry that the person in front of me will try to tilt his seat back, thus robbing me of a big chunk of the small amount of space that has been allotted to me.

I mentioned once before that the ATMs at my old bank used to display a message at the end of each transaction stating "It was a pleasure serving you." The ATMs at my new bank don't say things like that, but they do enforce a sort of friendly informality when you deal with them. Any yes/no question the ATM asks me, such as "Would you like to see your current balance?" I have to answer by pressing one of two buttons. One of the buttons is labeled "Sure" and the other is labeled "No, thanks." That's not the way I want to talk to my machines. I want to keep the transactions on a more professional level. I want to be able to tell the ATM "Yes" or "No."

Maybe I'm making too big a deal of this, but understand that this is just the thin end of the wedge. Human civilization won't progress as long as we persist in the childish fantasy that our machines are capable of caring about us or being friendly with us.

Anyway, I tried booking my flight online, but I couldn't get all of the flights I wanted. That was probably my fault, since I sort of waited until the last minute to book the flight, if by "the last minute" you mean "a month and a half."

A month and a half seems like plenty of time, but it isn't. A few years ago, it used to be more than enough time, but in today's fast-paced world, it just isn't enough. So the only flight I could get from my dad's place to my sister's was at 6:00 a.m., which would have been inconvenient for everyone. There were other flights available, but in order to book one of them I would have had to pay an extra $100 or so.

That didn't seem right to me, so I decided to call the airline and speak to a representative. I didn't expect to speak to a representative right away, of course -- I expected to first have to navigate my way through a maze of automated menus by punching a series of buttons on my telephone.

I don't mind automated menus one bit, by the way. I did at first, but they've been around for so long that by now they're just a part of life. As a matter of fact, I'm sometimes surprised when I call some company and a person answers.

The thing is, to navigate through the airline's menu system, I couldn't simply hit the appropriate buttons on my telephone -- I actually had to speak to the computer, which was annoying. Making us talk to computers is a way of forcing us to participate in the delusion that computers are human in some ways, and I resent having to participate in a delusion I don't even believe in.

Every time the computer wanted to acknowledge my response, it told me, "Okay, I got it." I found that sort of annoying, since the computer doesn't really "get" anything. Why does it have to be so casual and idiomatic with me?

It wouldn't have been so bad, except that sometimes the computer had difficulty understanding something I said. It didn't matter how clearly I enunciated it -- the computer always responded with "Sorry, I didn't get that. Please repeat it."

Well, so much for the Turing Test, right? But the computer's inability to understand a simple phrase, even after I repeated it several times, reminded me of one time about ten or twelve years ago when I was waiting to be treated by a chiropractor and I happened to overhear something the receptionist said. She had just gotten off the phone with a patient and was telling someone else, "That lady was a real bitch, so I made her spell out everything -- her name, her street, everything."

Anyway, after the computer finally gave up on me, it allowed me to talk to a human being. This particular human being was a woman in India, and I had almost as much trouble understanding her as the computer had had understanding me. But we worked through all that and she was able to book me on a later flight. I had to pay an extra $100 or so, but next time I'll know better and book my flight a few months in advance.