Bill Schubart: Will artificial intelligence make life better or just make business more profitable?

UVM’s modernized supercomputer, installed several years ago, was intended to strengthen the school’s research capacity. Photo by Aidan Quigley/VTDigger

I struggle with the concept of artificial intelligence – maybe because in my 77 years I’ve had to deal with the intelligence that I can perceive and distill from teachers, friends, teachers. art, science and the natural world.

I had to consider and process these entries, place them in context, and sort out what is true and valid and what is not.

Technology, like a hand tool, is meant to make life easier. But if the energy needed to learn and use the tool exceeds the energy it saves by using it, it’s not a useful tool, as I mentioned in a previous column.

The explosion of AI software that tries to satisfy our natural human need for help and guidance is supposed to save industry billions but, so far, hasn’t done much for humans. in search of answers.

Will AI make the world a better place or will it just make business more profitable? When deploying AI, will companies prioritize customer needs and human needs or company politics and profits?

The company I co-founded and ran for 25 years provided local call center service to major broadcasters and several publishers. At our peak, we employed 80 agents fully trained in our customers’ products. Our goal was to answer all calls on the third ring and we were more than successful. An agent might respond, “Thank you for calling The History Channel; How can I help you?” Agents knew customers’ product lines intimately and had a screen saver for all product inquiries.

We sold the business in 2008 to a private equity firm that cut costs, moved the call center to Southeast Asia, where agents answered calls from dozens of other companies, and tried to implement a primitive AI. The deterioration in customer service was so severe that customers began to leave in droves and the company and its 175 jobs disappeared within a few years.

Have you ever called the toll-free hotline for QuickBooks, Adobe, your bank, the IRS, Medicare, or any of the countless other services we increasingly rely on? Studies show that 15% of customers hang up after being put on hold for 40 seconds. When a customer successfully complains to a company about its product or service, does that information ever reach decision makers?

Remember when you could call a travel agent and be booked from Burlington to Iceland and back and receive your trip details. Now you have to work directly with the airline or a travel aggregator – good luck with that.

A persistent airline customer strained a company’s phone line after it was put on hold for two hours. He decided to wait and see how long the company would keep him online. About 15 hours later, the call finally went through and he was informed that his original request (which had put him on hold in the first place) had been denied due to an error.

My own record to date is waiting 47 minutes for a human to answer the Quicken helpline in the Philippines. We then talked for 128 more minutes after I gave her online access to my computer, and she finally acknowledged that the system was having “problems” and that I would have to call back later.

It turned out that I lost the ability to process 22 years of financial records. Fortunately, I had backed up the data.

To apply to US colleges, our fully literate, trilingual Serbian student Mina, who earned A’s at Champlain Valley Union High School as a senior, had to take a standard test administered online to determine her English proficiency. .

The first effort failed due to a time confusion between Euro-Military Standard Time and US Time.

The second effort, which she started half an hour earlier, was on her home computer. This required significant rewiring. She passed the technical test and then, a few minutes before starting, was prompted to download an extension. Once the download was complete and at the start of the test, the extension created ambiguities on the screen. She was told that if the extension was causing a problem, she should click the “help” icon. There was no help icon. We were unable to resolve the technical problem, so Mina was disconnected from the site.

We set up the third trial at CVU in its computer lab with the help of a staff technician. Mina arrived an hour early. They resolved the myriad of technical issues, including the move to another school site, and testing began. She finished the first half and was told to take a 10 minute break. She did, came back and did it again, but the testing site told her she couldn’t complete the test because she took her cell phone to the bathroom (to text me that the test worked).

She was denied access for part two and called me in tears. So, after three tries and charges for each, she was unable to pass the test required of all foreign students wishing to apply to an American college – our country’s loss.

I recently went to a restaurant that didn’t have a menu. I had to get the WiFi password from the waitress, enter it into my cell phone, scan a QR code, and read a linear menu that lists my lunch options and prices. I will never go back there. Maybe I’m just old.

On my way to Canada to pick up my wife from the airport, I completed the ArriveCan online registration form, a prerequisite for any traveler to Canada now. I filled it with all my personal details, then it asked me for a credit card. I was surprised at the charge, but carelessly entered my Amex card. It failed. So, I entered a Visa card. I then received an email telling me that my payments had not gone through and that an agent would contact me within 72 hours. Expecting to be in Canada in 60 hours, I replied that I needed help first.

The answer came from Russia and both cards were torn up. I canceled both and went to Canada without a credit card. The fake site perfectly mirrored the legit Canadian site, just adding the map capture.

I am an early adopter. I wrote my first novel on a laptop the size of a suitcase 35 years ago. But I worry about our aging population, which I count myself among. Many no longer have access to the once common human help (“navigators”, I think we called them). How can someone of Medicare or Social Security age navigate the myriad complexities of using systems designed primarily to minimize personnel costs on their own?

Through our local telephone company, we have fiber optic cable to our home. But we know of many Vermonters who still have remote access.

If health care continues to migrate to telemedicine, hotlines go unanswered, and emergency room waits lengthen, what will happen to the many people whose access to medication throughout their lives was done through a local primary care physician? How many people will just give up? At a certain age, the energy and perhaps the ability to relearn to cope with all of life’s tasks diminishes.

Artificial intelligence holds promise in many areas, but if it is designed only to extract human costs from businesses and collect personal data to resell for profit, it will not serve humanity well.

AI must be designed with people (consumers) in mind and knowing that information technology can be designed to help or exploit, depending on how it is deployed.

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