Inhuman Communication

Tech, Robots, Friendship and Why I’m Screwed for the Future

Recently, I sat on a panel at a symposium entitled The Future of Humanity in the Smart Machine Age. The circumstances surrounding me being chosen to appear at this event – other speakers included Steve Wozniak, Salim Ismail (Founder of Singularity University) and a bunch of executive muckety-mucks – can best be described as doing a favor for a college buddy who organized the event and was admittedly desperate for a woman. (To be one of the speakers.) (One must capitalize on those rare occasions when simply not having a penis gains entree or works to one’s advantage.)

Having made a first, second and third career out of pretending to be someone I’m not, I was actually comfortable holding intermittent court among business school professors who’ve written books on economics, executives from cable TV networks, and heads of health care conglomerates; I kinda sorta managed to hold my own.

But a question to our panel from the audience particularly unnerved me, and kept reemerging like acid reflux during the remainder of the day: in the fast approaching age of Artificial Intelligence WHO do you think is going to be left behind?

Sitting on stage among the other panelists and looking out into the glare of many spotlights and hundreds of obscured faces, I wondered if anyone could perceive the thought bubble above my head: um, yeah, that would be ME. I resisted the impulse to actually raise my hand.

Indeed, I know with greater certainty than taxes or death that as technology advances, I am one of those who’s going struggle to keep up, or even survive. How do I know that I am screwed for the foreseeable future? Let’s just say I work with millennials. Unlike most Gen X-ers, I love millennials, or at least I love my millennials – they are smart and cool and they get shit done.

Like superfast.

If I ask the female millennial in my office to start thinking about a website design, she has a mockup ready by the end of the day. For someone who hails from a generation that prided itself on concerted and dedicated slacking, this is both impressive and intimidating. (I could not create a website if the lives of my children depended on it.) (Although luckily my children probably could.) (Don’t even get me started on how long it took me to figure out how to post this inaugural blog.) (WTF is a widget, anyway?)

As much I love ‘em, the millennials, without even meaning to, make it clear on a near daily basis that when it comes to technology, I am a moron. I am SURE each of them has had the thought, “If I had a dollar for every time she says . . . uh how do I get my keyboard to stop doing overwrite again? It just randomly started . . . it’s like it has a mind of its own . . . oh yeah, ok, cool . . . um do you think you could just come over here and do that for me?”

In the same way that Trump and the mentally-flabby Fox n’ Friends set live in abject fear of immigrants, so do I quake with anxiety over the influx of robots, and the very real possibility of them taking over society and subjugating people like me into nothing more than fleshy inept slaves who perform functions that the robots simply won’t want to do.

I had a conversation with a robot the other night, and it did not go well. Try as I might to be open-minded, I don’t see myself ever being able to relate to these non-humans, let alone mentally outmaneuver them.

So here’s what happened – I had found several mysterious and not altogether insignificant charges to my credit card statement attributed to Microsoft Xbox. (Yes, my kids have an Xbox game console – don’t ask me which one – and yes they have all those horribly misguided and violent games where the point is to carjack, kill, and hold-up as many convenience stores as possible before you lose all fifteen of your lives that yes I swore when they were babies I would NEVER EVER let them have just like I swore I would never let them play with my iPhone or have more than one hour of screen time a day . . . and no I do not have any earthly idea how much each of those games costs nor if I pay a monthly subscription or if I am blowing what should be their college funds and my retirement on Grand Theft Auto or COD: Zombies or WHATEVER . . . and you know what . . . if you’re judging me right now why don’t you move along and find yourself a mommy blog that tells you how to make delicious smoothies out of gravel and kale.) (FWIW, when the Zombie Apocalypse actually happens, MY kids are gonna be ready.)

Okay got that off my chest. So anyway, I called my credit card company to inquire about the mysterious charges. My credit card company is accustomed to getting phone calls from me – I have AmEx customer service on speed-dial and Chase Visa has all but put out a restraining order on me – questioning and challenging what invariably turn out to be LEGITIMATE charges: “Well Ms. Moran, we can dispute that but looking at your past statements here, I see that you appear to be a regular customer at Harbour Spirits, and that charges made there frequently do precede large purchases on Zappos.com.”

I love AmEx customer service. All I have to know is my mother’s maiden name and I am almost instantaneously linked up with a Live Human Being. The LHB at AmEx told me that Xbox does not offer a 1-800 number, but I could go to their website. Which I did.

Through some kind of autofill miracle, I was able to sign on to a Microsoft account, somehow associated with me, or at least with my Xbox, well the kids’ Xbox to be clear. There was a lot of rigmarole and then I started my online chat with the robot.

ROBOT: How can I be of assistance to you today Lindsay M.?

ME: I noticed on my credit card statement various charges to Xbox, and I am just trying to figure out what those are for . . .

ROBOT: Thank you Lindsay M. I am very pleased to be able to help you with that problem. Can you please tell me the Gamertag associated with the account.

ME: Huh?

ROBOT: In order to further assist you, I will need the Gamertag attached to this account.

ME: I don’t know what a Gamertag is.

ROBOT: A Gamertag is the alter ego you use to game and share with other people in the global Xbox community. As soon as we know your Gamertag, we can get you back to gaming!

ME: I don’t have a Gamertag, and I don’t want to get back to gaming, I want to find out what I am being charged for.

ROBOT: For security reasons, I cannot continue this conversation or discuss sensitive matters until you have provided your Gamertag.

ME: Hold on . . . (O.S.) Teenager! Younger Kid! Do either of you know what the Xbox Gamertag is?

DEAFENING SILENCE.

ME: Teenager, Younger Kid, answer me! What is the Xbox Gamertag.

CONTINUED DEAFENING SILENCE.

ROBOT: If you would like Lindsay M., we can provide you a randomly generated Gamertag so that you can return to gaming immediately.

ME: I do not want to return to gaming. I do not GAME. I want to find out what these charges on my credit card are for!

ROBOT: As soon as I have your Gamertag Lindsay M., I can assist you with that question.

ME: Give me a 1-800 number to call, I want to talk to a human being.

ROBOT: If you can login now using your Gamertag, you can request a callback.

ME: I thought I WAS logged in.

ROBOT: You are logged in with me but you are not logged in with Xbox Live to request a callback. For that, you will need your Gamertag.

ME: I told you I don’t know my Gamertag.

ROBOT: You can login using any Gamertag associated with your account.

ME: (O.S.) KIDS!!!!! DOES ANYONE KNOW ANY OF OUR GAMERTAGS?!

DEAFENING (NOW RAGE-INDUCING) SILENCE.

ME: (O.S.) I AM CANCELLING THE XBOX!

YOUNGER KID (O.S., mumbling inaudibly): Try PsychoYoungerKid24.

ME (to ROBOT): Can you try PsychoYoungerKid24.

ROBOT: I have found the Gamertag PsychoYoungerKid24 but I am afraid that Gamertag is not associated with this account.

ME: Whose account is it associated with?

ROBOT: For security purposes, can you please provide me your mother’s birth date?

ME: 10-29-1941

ROBOT: I am sorry but that does not match our records.

ME: But that is my mother’s birthday!

ROBOT: It does not match our records of your mother’s birthday.

ME: Get me a human being . . . NOW!

ROBOT: That is not possible unless you request a callback, but to request a callback you will need to login to Xbox Live . . . using your Gamertag.

ME: THIS IS UNETHICAL!!!! I WANT TO TALK TO A HUMAN BEING RIGHT GODDAMN NOW!!!!

ROBOT: I can understand your frustration Lindsay M.

ME (close to tears): NO YOU CAN NOT; YOU ARE ROBOT! IF YOU CAN’T GET ME A HUMAN BEING, AT LEAST FIND ME A MORE COMPETENT ROBOT FFS!! THIS IS AN OUTRAGE!!! YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED!!!! . . . I AM A SINGLE MOTHER!!!!!

. . . and anyway as far as I can tell, with that, the robot unceremoniously ended our chat. Didn’t even offer me the chance to move to an Escalation Robot. But this is how I really know I’m not going to fare well in the era of A.I. I can’t stop thinking about this robot, and the fact that our conversation – our relationship, really – ended on such a sour note. I am one of these people who does not like to have bad blood, between myself and anyone, even if the other “person” is a Microsoft-deployed robot who has no blood whatsoever.

I think about this as we gear up for the inevitable Robot Revolution – how are those of us too sensitive to survive even the vagaries of human-to-human communication administered as increasingly it is over text or Facebook message or lightly veiled pointed posts ever going to make it when we’re up against an army of bots that treat our emotion, the very thing that makes up human, and should provide us a competitive edge, with complete disregard.

What are we going to do when our humanity becomes our handicap? Or has this – as evidenced by my disastrous interaction with the Xbox robot – already occurred?

I can’t answer this – or really any of the questions I pose. All I know is that I wish someone, anyone – the Xbox robot, or one of her robot colleagues, would pick up the phone and give me a callback, even if I don’t have a Gamertag and I probably never will.

###

Watch me crush it on the Xbox here.


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