AI Can't Fix Shitty Automation

Ah, the siren song of automation. It’s been serenading industries for decades, promising a symphony of efficiency, a concerto of cost-savings. But what happens when the music stops, and we’re left with a cacophony of customer complaints, a chorus of burnt-out employees?

This week, the dissonance is coming from a somewhat unexpected place: the quiet desperation of call center workers.

The AI Band-Aid

American Banker magazine recently ran an article touting a novel application of artificial intelligence at First Horizon Bank. Apparently, the powers that be are deploying an AI system that monitors their call center workers for signs of stress. When the algorithm senses that a worker is nearing their breaking point, it triggers a “reset”— a heartwarming montage of family photos set to uplifting music. It’s like a digital lozenge for a throbbing work-related headache.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making work more humane. But the real problem here isn’t a lack of inspirational slideshows; it’s the very nature of the work itself. These call center reps are bombarded with frustrated, even furious, customers, day in and day out. And the irony is, this very AI solution is meant to soothe a problem exacerbated by another form of automation: interactive voice response (IVR).

The Automation Avalanche

First Horizon, like many companies, has enthusiastically embraced the supposed cost-savings of IVR. They boast that 85% to 95% of their calls are now handled by this automated system. But here’s the rub: IVR is universally loathed. It’s a digital labyrinth of endless menus and prerecorded platitudes, designed to deter customers from ever reaching an actual human being.

Imagine this: Your credit card gets frozen (thanks to an automated fraud prevention system, of course). You’re at the self-checkout (more automation!), groceries piled high, kids screaming, only to have your card declined. You call the bank, and the IVR gauntlet begins. Punch in your account number, wade through a thicket of options, get shunted to the wrong department, try again, and again, your blood pressure mounting with each robotic repetition. Finally, mercifully, you reach a human.

Now, tell me, are you greeting that call center rep with a sunny disposition? Or is there a good chance you’re, at the very least, a little bit on edge? Multiply that scenario by dozens of calls a day, and you begin to understand the plight of the call center worker.

Shitty Automation: A Symphony of Suck

This First Horizon saga exemplifies what I call “shitty automation.” It’s the kind of technology that makes life demonstrably worse for almost everyone involved. Customers hate it, workers are demoralized by it, and the quality of the service plummets.

And this, I fear, is the path we’re marching down with the current wave of generative AI. I’m not losing sleep over sentient robots; I’m losing sleep over the millions of managers eager to deploy AI for tasks that were better left to humans, all in the name of shaving a few pennies off the bottom line.

The promise of AI is alluring, but its application is often clumsy and dehumanizing. Instead of using technology to enhance our lives, we’re using it to erode them, replacing human connection with cold efficiency, genuine interaction with sterile simulation.

Let’s not allow AI to become another verse in the ballad of shitty automation. Let’s demand better, for ourselves, for our workers, for our shared human experience. It’s time to change the tune.


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