AI Can't Fix Automation's Problems

Ah, automation. It’s the siren song of efficiency, the promise of a world where machines do the dreary work and we humans can kick back and enjoy the fruits of their silicon labor. But as anyone who’s ever wrestled with a maddening phone tree or self-checkout kiosk knows, the reality is often far more frustrating. And now, some folks think AI can swoop in and fix the mess automation made.

AI to the Rescue (Or Is It?)

Take, for instance, this recent article in American Banker magazine. Apparently, some bright sparks have developed an AI system designed to soothe stressed-out call center workers. How, you ask? By treating them to personalized video montages of their families set to their favorite music after particularly grueling calls. Now, I’m all for a little mood-boosting tech, but this strikes me as a band-aid on a gaping wound.

The AI Bringing Zen to First Horizon’s Call Centers

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. About 53% of U.S. contact center agents who describe their stress level at work as high say they will probably leave their organization within the next six months, according to CMP Research’s 2023-2024 Customer Contact Executive Benchmarking Report.

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.

The Root of the Problem

The real issue here isn’t worker fragility, it’s the soul-crushing automation that’s driving them to the brink in the first place. Remember those automated phone menus we all love to hate – the ones that force us to navigate a labyrinth of pre-recorded options, only to dump us in the wrong department or disconnect us entirely? Those are called IVR systems (Interactive Voice Response), and they’re the reason so many customers are spitting fire by the time they finally reach a human. It’s not hard to see how dealing with a barrage of these frustrated callers day in and day out would take its toll.

Shitty Automation: A Pervasive Problem

This call center scenario is just one example of a much larger problem. We’re surrounded by “shitty automation” – tech that purports to make things easier but ends up making them worse for everyone involved. Self-checkout kiosks that malfunction constantly, automated customer service chatbots that can’t comprehend basic requests, algorithms that replace human judgment with often nonsensical results – the list goes on. The end result is a world where human connection is increasingly replaced by clunky, impersonal technology.

The Generative AI Conundrum

And now, we have generative AI – the latest shiny object promising to revolutionize everything. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not losing sleep over some Terminator-esque AI apocalypse. What does keep me up at night is the potential for generative AI to become just another tool for shitty automation. Imagine a world where customer service is handled entirely by AI chatbots that, despite their impressive ability to generate human-sounding text, can’t actually understand or resolve your problem. Or a workplace where creative professionals are replaced by algorithms that churn out bland, formulaic content.

AI-Free: A Sign of the Times

It’s telling that we’re already seeing a backlash against this AI-driven future. Recently, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic about the growing movement towards “AI-free” products and services. People are starting to realize that AI-generated content often lacks the nuance, creativity, and frankly, the soul of human-made work.

A Better Way Forward

So, what’s the solution? It’s not about abandoning technology altogether. It’s about using it thoughtfully, ethically, and in ways that actually improve our lives. We need to resist the temptation to automate everything for the sake of efficiency and profit. We need to prioritize human connection, creativity, and well-being over soulless machines and algorithms. And we need to remember that the true measure of progress is not how much we can automate, but how well we can live.


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