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Could artificial intelligence offer better customer service than humans?

Nick Booth

shopping getty 300x225 Could artificial intelligence offer better customer service than humans?Most retail technology gives more power to the seller but some tech start ups try to help the consumer. One company is using IT to create a service culture. But shouldn’t humans be playing their part?

If Britain abandons manufacturing and becomes a service economy, surely we need to raise our game. Can IT make up for our failings?

Here’s a story that exemplifies British service culture:

In a packed station ticket office, 50 commuting wildebeest shuffle towards the single ticket office window that will give us safe passage to London. Five commission-hungry ticket inspectors lurk in wait behind some ticket checking machines. They look inactive but if one of the herd gets desperate and attempts a risky barrier crossing things could get nasty. The only other member of staff is patrolling the queue, explaining why it’s not his fault and he’s not going to get one of the five ticket machines up and running.

He whispers conspiratorially out the corner of his mouth. “If you go back into town and buy a travel card from the shop you can jump the queue.”

Five minutes later, I’m back ready to feed one adult and one children’s ticket into the automatic barrier. This time my co-conspirator gave me some fresh advice. “You can’t go through sir,” he said, “there’s no trains.”

He followed that up with statements such as “You never said you wanted a train,” “It’s not my fault there’s a fire at Waterloo” and “If you carry on like that I’ll call the police.”

Maybe he was right and there really was no need to swear. But surely human ingenuity will tell you that a man queuing to buy a train ticket to London probably intends to get a train into London. Ipso facto, if Waterloo station has been closed for two hours, it might be a good idea to warn him he’s wasting his time.

This might be an overly idealistic argument but I like to think even the laziest, dumbest animal is far superior to a computer. Our brains are massively sophisticated bio chemical processing systems that have evolved over the millennia. IT by comparison was born yesterday. In a battle of survival skills, a Wildebeest could run rings around even the cleverest cloud computer.

Humans have massive unlocked potential that could be coaxed out with a bit of training. A human can answer a question: Where can I buy a ticket for the train? and they can understand the subtext: I only want a ticket if the trains are running. A machine can’t make logical leaps like that – they’ve got no common sense or empathy, have they?

Davin Yap the founder of Transveral disagrees. His company is pioneering a sort of automated customer service, where machines are programmed to offer the level of customer empathy that we humans could give, if we weren’t above that sort of thing.

Yap is one of the few technologists who wants technology to put power in the hands of the consumer. “A lot of technology helps the retailer and gives nothing to the consumer. Supermarkets ask customers to train themselves to self scan but they make all the savings and the shopper gets nothing for their effort,” he says.

Yap’s technology start up, spun out of Cambridge University’s technology faculty, set out to redesign the way businesses help their customers, by creating machines that try to anticipate what people want. It uses historical information about shoppers to try to create ‘anticipatory interactions’. “We try to figure out the things you need to know,” says Yap.

In future, for example, if you ask a machine for the best directions to a particular place, it can give you several variations on the route, depending on the type of person you seem to be. If you’re the type that wants to get from A to B quickly, there might be one route. If you want to travel the shortest route, the machine will know that this isn’t always the same as the quickest route. But it might also know that neither speed or economy are as important to you as rubbernecking and tutting at the scene of an accident (because the machine knows what newspaper you buy) it can help you. It will check with its database and direct you on a route past that day’s grisliest carnage.

That last example was just a hypothetical one but Transversal already offers its anticipatory interactions service for the BBC, John Lewis and Tesco. Personally, I’m not sure about the customer service offered by one of those brands. Maybe Transversal will transform them into a more socially-minded company.

“Our technology is a memory engine, that automatically links information together,” says Yap, “your train event is precisely the type of situation where it would have helped”. Demand for this sort of hosted artificial intelligence is booming and Transversal now boasts 64 employees to run its software as a service business. So maybe they can help the service economy. At best they will help shoppers save time and get more for their money.

I’d still like to see someone get the most out of human intelligence though. There’s even more potential there.

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  • ColostomyTempleton

    well if a Tesco self service checkout ran for parliament I’d vote for it. Is that an AI? I don’t know, but its probably got better skills than the currant government

  • Serenityjunkie

    Machines???? Hmmmmph That one at B and Q has a severe attitude problem…

  • Christopher Haslett

    “If Britain abandons manufacturing and becomes a service economy…”

    I stopped reading right there. There is no such thing as a country of 50+ million people that lives on services. What a silly premise.

  • Trevellyan Black

    In order to counteract my feelings of rage at the actions of the douchebag member of staff in this story, I still luxuriate when I think of the time that I and four other passengers got off a train to pass through an unattended gate on the other side of the platform and were pounced upon by five ticket inspectors. I have to admit to jumping, which alerted one of the inspectors to my perceived guilt. He made a beeline for me, stuck his face into mine and demanded my ticket, which I produced with a flourish. He was gutted. Sadly the other four passengers were oohing and aahing as I went on my way.

  • plumplum

    But how will we cope with artificial surliness and rudeness?
    Would the response to bad language be a modern day Turing test?
    Much artificial intelligence is already superior to some “service persons” even now.


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