AI Can't Fix Automation's Problems

You know, it’s funny—or it would be, if it weren’t so deeply, existentially depressing. It seems like every few months, some company, or bank, or even government agency, unveils some splashy new “AI solution” to a thorny, complex problem. It invariably gets a lot of press; a lot of breathless, gee-whiz type hype, and everybody swoons over what a game-changer this miraculous new bit of machine intelligence will be. Until, inevitably, it turns out that not only does it not work as advertised, it manages to exacerbate the very problem it was supposed to solve, while creating a host of fresh new ones along the way. And the thing is, more often than not, the intractable problem this miraculous new AI solution was concocted to address was in fact caused by the last round of much-hyped automation technology! This isn’t new, of course—anybody remember IBM’s Watson? What a ride that was—but I fear the age of generative AI is going to bring a whole new tidal wave of this sort of self-defeating, self-perpetuating techno-solutionism crashing down upon us. I’m not fretting over a robot uprising here—I mean the much more mundane, yet somehow much more pernicious kind of dystopian technological creep that quietly erodes the quality of our everyday lives, replacing genuine human interaction with janky automated systems and degrading good jobs into thankless and stressful gigs. And as proof, I offer you Exhibit A, this very real headline, plucked from the real world, circa mid-2024:

The AI Bringing Zen to First Horizon’s Call Centers

No, really. That’s the actual title of the article, which ran in American Banker magazine last week. It details how First Horizon Bank is using cutting-edge artificial intelligence to…well, I’ll let them explain it:

“Call center agents who have to deal with angry or perplexed customers all day tend to have through-the-roof stress levels and a high turnover rate as a result….Some think this is a problem artificial intelligence can fix. A well-designed algorithm could detect the signs that a call center rep is losing it and do something about it, such as send the rep a relaxing video montage of photos of their family set to music…First Horizon is using artificial intelligence and such video ‘resets’ to bring a state of calm and well-being to the people who talk to customers on the phone all day.”

Hoo boy. Where to begin? Let’s just pause for a moment and let the sheer dystopian absurdity of the situation sink in: A giant bank decides to combat its employees’ burnout by forcing them to watch a saccharine, AI-curated slideshow of their loved ones, set to elevator muzak, before they can return to fielding irate calls from customers driven to the edge by the bank’s own soul-crushing automation systems.

You can almost hear the management consultants pitching this: “What if, instead of addressing the systemic dysfunction and inhumane working conditions that are causing our employees to fray, we just hit them with a dopamine blast of sentimentality on demand? It’ll be like a little digital pacifier! A shot of synthetic serenity! Problem solved.”

Only, of course, the problem isn’t even remotely solved—it’s just masked with a thin, glitchy veneer of algorithmic palliative care. The underlying cause of the call center workers’ burnout—the reason so many customers are “angry” and “perplexed,” as the article so delicately puts it—goes unmentioned by the bank or the AI firm peddling this snake oil solution.

Thankfully, the article itself spills the beans later on: “Today, about 85% to 95% of customer calls that First Horizon fields are handled in a self-service manner within the interactive voice response.”

There’s your culprit, in all its automated glory: interactive voice response, better known as IVR, the bane of any customer service experience this side of the early aughts.

Now, it doesn’t take a sociologist to connect the dots here. If a bank is using a notoriously frustrating and often useless automated system to deal with the overwhelming majority of its customer calls, it stands to reason those customers who manage to actually get through to a human are going to be, shall we say, less than thrilled.

Think about it: you’re trying to resolve an urgent issue with your bank—maybe your debit card’s been frozen, or there’s a mysterious hold on your account. You call the number on the back of your card, and…you’re plunged headlong into the labyrinthine hellscape of IVR.

You’re forced to listen to a stilted, robotic voice reel off a seemingly endless series of menu options—“For account balance information, press one…for technical support, press two…for a list of frequently asked questions that definitely won’t answer your actual question, press three…” and so on.

You painstakingly punch in the numbers, only to be shunted to the wrong department, or subjected to an interminable wait, or simply hung up on altogether. By the time you finally manage to reach a human being, you’ve been marinating in a potent cocktail of frustration, helplessness, and impotent rage. The chances that you’re going to be the picture of patience and understanding when that beleaguered call center worker picks up the phone are…well, let’s just say I wouldn’t bet on it.

And that’s the whole insidious genius of these “AI solutions”—they’re invariably designed to address the symptoms of a problem, rather than the underlying disease.

Instead of investing in better customer service, or addressing the root causes of customer frustration, they slap a high-tech Band-Aid on the whole mess and call it innovation. It’s like treating a raging fever with a cold compress, while steadfastly ignoring the fact that the patient is riddled with a virulent infection.

It’s not just call centers, of course. The same dynamic is playing out across countless industries—from healthcare to education to retail to media. Companies are using automation and AI to cut costs, streamline operations, and boost efficiency, often at the expense of worker well-being, customer satisfaction, and the overall quality of the services being offered.

And then, when these systems inevitably fall short, they roll out yet another shiny new AI widget to try to paper over the cracks. It’s a self-licking ice cream cone of technological dysfunction. It’s a recipe for a world where every interaction is mediated by an unfeeling algorithm, every transaction is a soulless exercise in efficiency, and every human connection is frayed by the relentless pursuit of cost-optimization.

Here’s my concern: this is exactly the model I see generative AI following—not in some apocalyptic, sci-fi sense, but in a much more insidious, quotidian way. It’s going to be deployed not to empower us, or to make our lives easier, or to solve our most pressing problems. It’s going to be used to cut corners, to squeeze workers, and to further automate the soul out of every interaction we have. We’re already seeing it happen:

  • Companies are using ChatGPT and its ilk to churn out generic marketing copy and tepid social media posts.
  • Universities are deploying AI-powered plagiarism detectors that flag original work as suspect.
  • News organizations are experimenting with AI-generated articles that read like they were written by a committee of bored bureaucrats.

These are just the early tremors, mind you. The real earthquake is yet to come. As generative AI becomes more powerful and more ubiquitous, it will continue to chip away at the fabric of our lives, replacing genuine creativity, human empathy, and authentic connection with algorithmic approximations.

The world will become a little blander, a little more homogenous, a little more…automated. It’s a bleak prospect, to be sure. But I’m an optimist at heart, or at least I try to be. And I still believe it’s possible to forge a different path—one where technology serves humanity, rather than the other way around. It will require us to be more discerning, more critical, more demanding of the systems we create. It will require us to prioritize human values over corporate profits, and to recognize that there are some things that simply can’t, and shouldn’t, be automated.

It will be a long and arduous journey, no doubt. But I, for one, am willing to undertake it. After all, what’s the alternative? To resign ourselves to a future where our every interaction is mediated by an unfeeling algorithm, and our lives are governed by the cold logic of the machine? I don’t know about you, but that’s not a world I’m willing to live in.

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