Whenever I tell people I work in artificial intelligence, they often feel compelled to take up the mantle of human workers the world over. The exact argument tends to vary, but it generally boils down to some form of “Machines can’t do the work of people because they bring a ‘human touch point’ that no machine could ever hope to match.”
Immediately after having one of these debates, I then had the pleasure of experiencing some of these much-lauded “human touch points” first-hand on my travels back to NYC from abroad. The first encounter was with a human agent who worked for an airline. When I went to check in, she informed me that, because I failed to show up at least an hour early, technically I had missed my flight and had to buy a new ticket. For context, I was mere minutes past the wire, and the airport I was flying from generally had security lines that range from 0 to 5 minute waits. Let’s just say if the whole airport was a parking lot, they wouldn’t bother with naming sections.
I protested, but they claimed their system wouldn’t let them print my ticket even if they wanted to.
Not a good start for team Human Touch.
What is the point of human agents when the machines are still the ones calling the shots? I made my appeals up the chain of command, but it appeared the real boss — their system — was digging its heels in on this one. I bought a new ticket, went through security, and then to kill time I watched them board my original flight.
My connection in the major airport having been thoroughly thrown into disarray, I decided to console myself with an overpriced treat from a shop in the terminal. The shop was quite large, so they had two check-out stands. However, the clerk, who had apparently been craving some human touch points herself, had left her post to converse with the other clerk on the far side of the store. I ventured across the store to give them my money and was made to feel like I had barged into their private living room, demanding to be served. Not being the type to make a fuss, I waited for her to finish her story before acknowledging me.
Next on my tour-de-force of human touch points was the immigration agent. The agent’s demeanor was like that of an old-school detective who knows you are guilty and is just waiting for you to slip up. Fortunately, after some gruff questioning, we both got our wish and I left his country.
Upon landing at JFK, I was greeted by an automated immigration agent. Rather than interrogating me, it simply scanned my passport, did some quick calculations, and then seemingly charcoal sketched a rather fetching photo of me onto my immigration ticket. Seriously, whatever filter they programmed into that machine needs to be on Instagram.
As I walked out of the terminal I passed the self-service check-in machines from JetBlue, an airline I love, and whose system has never judged me for only being 55 minutes early.
Before I finally arrived at home I decided to purchase a more reasonably priced treat from CVS, where the self-checkout machine resisted the urge to chat up her neighboring machine and instead was eagerly waiting to serve me.
It is worth noting that my more pleasant experiences with machines are not unique. Nuanced Enterprises found in a recent study that 67 percent people prefer self-service machines.
Add to that, the cost savings for implementing these machines is huge. Check-ins with a human agent cost the airline about $3 each; that cost drops to $0.14 with the mobile check-in machines. According to the International Air Transport Association, moving to a fully automated check-in process could save the airline industry $1.6 billion a year. Which raises the question: Why haven’t we?
Not only can automated systems offer companies cost savings, it can actually help them make more money. An experiment at McDonald’s found that customers using self-service kiosks were more likely to supersize their orders, resulting in an average increase of $0.30 per order. It appears customers ordering from a human were more self-conscious of the employee’s judgment, which I found shocking. People who are eating at McDonald’s still care what people think of them? I have always thought of it as the devil-may-care restaurant choice.
If customers prefer it, it saves money, and it even makes more money, why is it not already universal?
I get the reluctance to be the first mover — let the next guy work out the kinks. However, when it is working well for one company, why is it not quickly adopted by all the competitors in that same vertical? Walking past the airline check-in counters is a visual representation of the absurdity of the current situation. Check-in machines are available for some airlines and conspicuously absent from the airline right next to them.
It is hard to square this circle mentally until we look at the demographics of the 33 percent of people (the leftovers from the Nuance study above) who don’t prefer self-service machines. The most telling metric is age. Suffice it to say, this is the 33 percent of society most likely to call their grandchildren to ask what tweeting means.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, that 33 percent is also generally the voting majority of board members for most big companies. This gives more clarity to the selective reluctance of certain companies to implement machines into their workflow. Frankly, if I needed to gain approval from my grandfather for every technology purchase I wanted to make, I would be writing this article on a typewriter and calling it in to my editor on a rotary phone.
The question should be, then, when self-service machines are better in every measurable money-making metric, are the Luddite companies not in violation of their fiduciary obligation to shareholders?
Perhaps it is time that shareholders start demanding more measures to ensure that companies are up to date on the latest technological trends.
Should shareholders be able to audit the technology of a company, where a specialized team could do a cost-benefit analysis of implementing automating systems? Should there be mandatory board seats for younger, more tech-savvy members who can help drag these organizations into the 21st century? After all, $1.6 billion per year seems like a pretty major oversight, and airlines are far from the only offenders. Something as important as technology implementation should not be left to the whim of a group of people who are, by their nature, technologically averse.
I am fine debating every person who secretly longs for a time when a friendly attendant would pump your gas. They are welcome to hold their personal opinions about the importance of human touch points. However, when those beliefs take precedence over research results and company profits — and most importantly, my travel experiences — it is time for more drastic measures. As the AI/bot revolution continues to gain steam, progress should not be a matter of opinion.
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