But have we been thinking too much about the jobs such technology could take away, rather than those it could create? Now, ventures like Facebook’s digital personal assistant, M, suggest that “robot’s helper” might soon be a job description in many of our futures.
M is a new AI-fuelled digital assistant built into Facebook messenger. It can book your next hotel or flight, recommend a restaurant and reserve a table, purchase items for delivery or send news updates and reminders. Launched this summer, it’s currently being beta tested in the San Francisco area, assisting more than 10,000 Facebook users.
So what’s the high-tech secret sauce that makes M so good? Humans. Or, in Facebook parlance, AI trainers.
Ask M to recommend a local restaurant with good pad Thai and an AI trainer will review its suggestions before they’re sent back to you. Tell it to reserve a table for two, and the AI trainer may be the one to actually pick up the phone. Everything that M says is observed, validated or tweaked by a hired human being.
Facebook isn’t the only tech company to think of using humans as a hack. Clara Labs, a start-up in San Francisco, builds a virtual assistant that you can email to help set appointments in your calendar. Clara is AI, but when you include her in email chains, you’re also unwittingly including a number of humans who check over her work.
Then there’s Interactions, based in Franklin, Massachusetts, which builds “digital conversational assistants”. These entities handle the customer service hotlines for big corporations, such as health insurance company Humana and Texas utilities company TXU Energy. Interactions calls its human helpers intent analysts. When the automated assistant bumps up against a string of words it can’t quite understand, it zips them over to an intent analyst for interpretation. The human listens in, tells the software what to do next, and the caller’s conversation is back on track.
It’s a simulation of great AI – but companies like Facebook, Clara Labs and Interactions aren’t just using services like these as an elaborate ruse. It shows that engineers have learned a lot about how valuable humans can be.
Non-human helplines have developed something of a reputation, spawning an entire online service, GetHuman.com, dedicated to helping people escape technology’s uncomprehending clutches. The website contains specialised tips and tricks for different corporate contact numbers that are meant to ensure you speak to a human.