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Author Topic: Who needs Skynet?  (Read 1677 times)

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Mongrel

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Who needs Skynet?
« on: December 08, 2008, 11:07:40 AM »

So I was perusing the wonderful pages of LOLfed, as i do now and again, and I came across a minor article that reminded me once again about certain thoughts I've had for a while now ("a while" being only a relevant timeframe in terms of "several years prior to the current economic crisis").

Article: Expansion of Xtreem Effishunsee continues to spread to retail. Now, there's actually nothing new in this. These practices have been spreading throughout the service industry on all fronts for well over a decade, if not longer. But it it is a good starter point for discussion.

There are two aspects to this: 1 - the social aspect, and 2 - the business aspect.

Now the social aspect is the more visceral of the two. On the surface you have anecdotal comments about employees not being able to "talk to customers" etc., and you have customers who are unhappy at "being treated like a number". But there is in fact a real social issue when the small conversations that make up a significant part of our personal daily interactions are reduced to pre-scripted decision trees. As the world heads into what may turn out to be the worst financial crisis in nearly a century, interpersonal nastiness will only exacerbate a bad situation. The spiral will deepen as people in shitty jobs will come under tremendous pressure to avoid losing said shitty job and under tremendous pressure to conform to performance markers formulated by the boss-man. In worst-case scenarios, those performance markers will be unobtainable.

It's probably hyperbolic (hyperbole? me? nooo.), but what is is the cost to our society to encourage the calculated industrialization of human interaction?

Is this something we should be looking at? Is it even possible to do so in any meaningful way? You can unionize workers, and you can form consumer's groups, but they don't address the root issue of the subsumption of intangibles to pure mathematics. Of course, the species has been losing that battles for centuries if not a whole hell of a lot longer.  Survival will always trump enjoyment, at least in the long run. 

On the other hand, the business aspect has some interesting points going on. The crux of the matter is that this is an attempt to treat the service industry as a whole like the manufacturing industry. But the manufacturing industry creates products with defined physical specifications, where the service industry processes transactions and creates goodwill between consumers and producers. Sometimes you can quantify this, but it's a far less reliable thing than verifying a physical manufacturing standard.

There is a paradox in applying industrial efficiency measures to interpersonal interaction. A company saves money in an immediate and measureable way, but at a cost that is difficult if not impossible to calculate. A business will suffer real and definite losses if it delivers poor customer service and alienates people, but in a falling economy (or in industries that operate as quasi-monopolies), you will still see a growth in "nickle-and-diming" of customers and staff. At the root of all that small-minded penny-pinching is the fact that managers are trading small, immediate, measureable gains for longer-term losses that will rarely show up on a balance sheet in a way that anyone would actually answerable for them. Who cares if your customers throw away their brand loyalty? We just saved $15 000 on fractional seconds (P.S. I want a bonus)!

Additionally, a company faces other less-defined costs. There IS an upper threshold for employee stress, beyond which you get into bizarro world. The more strung out your employees feel, the more likely you will face increases in absenteeism (be it for sick days or 'fuck-The-Man' days) and high turnover/training/hiring costs. Hell, even if you pay your employees no benefits and treat them like toilet paper, this STILL represents an increase in costs.

And yet, customer loyalty is something that predates modern industry. It predates the creation of modern markets, corporations, trade guilds, bazaars, and damn near any other primitive financial institution you'd care to name. Trade loyalty by definition dates to the first time two individuals traded anything a second time. Loyalty can quite possibly be described as the oldest tool for customer retention in the book. But it takes time, it takes finesse, and most importantly, it must be tailored to the individual customer. And the only person who can DO that tailoring is the person that customer is talking to.

In my experience (omg anecdotal evidence, better crucify me now), it takes an extremely skilled person to be able to survive and provide good service under harsh time constraints. If time standards are not harsh, they are immaterial - which is to say, you can only increase efficiency if your workforce is actually working faster than they might have otherwise. Some individuals who might be able to do it in the allotted time normally (e.g. if there was no allotment) become uncomfortable under the pressure and may perform poorly (either taking longer or by turning terse/nasty), and some people just can't do it at all. While the easy response is "These people should not be employed and should be thrown out by their employers. No company should settle for subpar workers.", one needs to remember that most of our economy and job market is now service based. Those highly skilled bright-lights every manager craves often have other skills and find employment in better things and at the wages paid for most customer service positions, you'll be very lucky if you can get "the best of the rest".

So what then? Industrialize the whole process and hope your short-term savings offset increased costs? Take the plunge and allow your employees a freer hand? I won't pretend it's not a tough choice. Selling the latter option to a skeptical upper management sounds like Pinky saying "Trust me Brain, what could go wrong?" in some people's ears.

I mean, I've said it before, but it's worth stating again: I'm not a Luddite. My personal belief is that machines should do things that machines are suited to and that humans should do things that humans are suited to. Any attempt to force square pegs in fleshy holes and vice-versa is foolish and grossly inefficient. In fact this inefficiency is pervasive, affecting just about every industry I've observed, from medicine to fast food. The instinct is so wrongheaded it boggles the mind. They try to make machines more human-like and humans more machine-like and folks, it's back-asswards.

When I am at work, if there is a process that can be easily automated, I want to see that process automated. If I can be replaced by a machine, or my job made redundant because of gains in real efficiency, well, I for one welcome our new machine overlords. A talented person will always be given another role in the company or can find work elsewhere. But we haven't yet reached the point where we've made ourselves totally obsolete. And until the day we have true, perfectly functioning AI, this will continue to be impossible (and maybe not even then). To go back to my word-dump above, any attempt to introduce IVRs (those voice-answer, automatic answering systems) have met with extremely mixed results. And even when you have high-functioning IVRs, people feel no connection to them.

Total automation is not the answer, but neither is a lax, do-what-you-want atmosphere. Automated tools to help the customer service agent do their job quickly and efficiently will always be appreciated by both employees and clients. Perhaps the answer is simply moderation (my favourite answer), but with most of the costs of failure hidden, I'm buggered if I know how corporations will learn that lesson. Yes, there are successes that people point to, and bless their hearts for doing things right, but when lesser men try to copy success without truly understanding that success, well those copies will be similarly inferior.

I don't have an answer here, I'm just kind of rambling out a discussion point.

EDIT: Why the fuck did I type all that out on neo-pyoko?  :8V:
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Burrito Al Pastor

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #1 on: December 08, 2008, 11:52:39 AM »

The phrase you may be looking for is "social capital".
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Niku

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #2 on: December 08, 2008, 12:03:37 PM »

: I doooooooooooooo~

: Hey, he lied to us through song!  I hate when people do that!
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François

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #3 on: December 08, 2008, 12:37:46 PM »

I don't have much to say, mostly because I kind of agree.

But I still had to post to point out that I love this forum because it allows sentences like this to exist in a meaningful context and at face value:

There is a paradox in applying industrial efficiency measures to interpersonal interaction.

Seriously, :wuv:.
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Romosome

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #4 on: December 08, 2008, 12:44:26 PM »

There's a lot of social and personal ills caused by moving away from close, "tribal" or "village" societies.  The human psyche isn't really very happy when most people are only interacted with as strangers or acquaintances.
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Mongrel

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #5 on: December 08, 2008, 01:07:59 PM »

There's a lot of social and personal ills caused by moving away from close, "tribal" or "village" societies.  The human psyche isn't really very happy when most people are only interacted with as strangers or acquaintances.

I'm a huge believer in this actually. I think that more of our societal ills stem from this than is given credence for. Not that I have even the remotest clue as to how you would go about fixing that.

I comes back to the same point. Industrialization has always won because our species is still stuck in an 'adolescent' growth = survival mode. We need to shift into a far more sustainable model that will allow us to actually reach a productive 'adulthood' for the species.

Mind you, finding a way to recapture that local/tribal feeling (without actually regressing to that), wouldn't be some kind of panacea. I think the real answer is something we haven't seen yet.

Or we could get drunk and crash dad's car. That's good for some laughs anyway. 
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Mongrel

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #6 on: November 27, 2010, 09:41:36 AM »

So okay, the Globe's weekend op-ed piece is a good starting place for something that I've considered for a while.

Modern society already faces an unknown amount of pressure because the great devaluation of human labour. Physical work will probably never be as respectable as it once was and (more importantly) the number of physical jobs has drastically shrunk compared to human norms.

There's been a real and sustained shift employment in the 20th century. I forget where it was (grrrr), but there was a great infographic that broke down jobs by how removed they were from production and charted historical data. There was resource extraction (farms, mines) -> secondary processing (factories, building, transportation, maintenance) -> service (dealing with end consumers and users) and data (white collar jobs removed from the service aspect, usually higher-paying). There may have been one other intermediate category and it's a gross oversimplification of a spectrum, but you get the idea.

For the majority of human history, jobs started out in the first category but have significantly shifted along the graph in the past two hundred years. The largest segment of people in fully industrialized western nations (though not a majority... something like 40%) are now in employed in the third segment, service. There have been issues with this, because there are many people who are not really suited to service and would honestly be happier in a job that did not require much interaction with people or computer terminals. A job working with their hands.

Now, there's no need to discuss the benefits of things like mechanization or mass production. I don't think we're so stupid as to have a regressive debate like that (okay probably), but as with most things, advancement was a tradeoff rather than a strict gain. I'm not a Luddite and I'm not saying we need to go back to the farm or something because that won't get anybody anywhere. Hell, I'm not even going to bring up the health issues (positive or negative) that come with less physical work - that's another can of worms entirely. But it is worth discussing the consequences of the tradeoff, because while the positives were immediately apparent, the negative once have taken some time to be visible.

Up until recently, it looked we were moving in a direction where everybody with no place else to go was eventually going to be shoehorned into service jobs whether or not that's where we needed to go. The answer to people unsuited for the service industry was to just write them off and argue that lack of education had kept people dirt farming in perpetuity, so if you educate their kids, then you can have more desk jockeys. This was what the promised land looked like. Not the greatest, but I suppose things could be worse.

Here's the funny thing. We've lived for years with Terminator-like fears of the human race being obsoleted by robots which supersede us in every way (and who mercilessly annihilated us - because superior robot minds would always coldly calculate that we were useless, right?). Technological Singularity - after which, all bets are off!

But what if it doesn't play out like that? What if stuff like Transhumanism is just a cute bogeyman (or pipe dream) created by idle scientists and sci-fi writers and the path to AI doesn't lead through some tech researcher tinkering with robots [joke about Japanese robotics guys and mechanical vaginas goes here], but instead through a fellow making commercial customer service apps or credit-check algorithms? And what if the path isn't a fast one, but an incredibly slow and evolutionary one? One that doesn't come with a ready-made "human-replacing robot", but instead a series of different, isolated programs which simply collectively obsolete large chunks of the human mind.

In the drive to automate physical tasks for our collective benefit, we produced the semi-unintended consequence of making mental labour rather then physical labour the dominant form of labour. But factories and combine harvesters haven't obsoleted the need for physical labour entirely. They've merely allowed us to massively scale up the effectiveness of one person's labour. What happens when we do the same thing with the human mind? I don't expect that we'll come close to obsoleting the human mind ENTIRELY any time soon, but even making it 25% obsolete would be a huge blow.

In the linked article, it seems that the algorithms proposed aren't so much designed to obsolete the service industry - the trouble with wholly automated "customer service" needs no mention other than to say it's probably one of the most DIFFICULT things to automate. No, the algorithms proposed seem to be obsoleting jobs which are now considered good, well-paying middle-class jobs. As things move forward, the drive for easy and useful algorithms will be in things that are more easily quantified - in architecture, in medicine, in science, in economics, banking, geez, you name it (well, I guess we'll always be stuck with Lawyers - sorry Paco).

Will we simply start obsoleting the service industry, the (current) great labour pool of last resort? Or will we leapfrog that and start obsoleting those higher paying jobs as well, dumping even more people into the service industry? Or will something else happen?

What the hell are people going to do for a living? Beyond that, what the the hell are people going to do that they find satisfying in life? I'm not even sure that mass depopulation is an answer, because these problems all revolve around economies of scale, not economies of absolute numbers.

I'm not sure I have a point, just raising a discussion.
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Brentai

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #7 on: November 27, 2010, 10:56:25 AM »

This is the plot of Metal Gear Solid 4.
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Bal

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #8 on: November 27, 2010, 11:20:13 AM »

Except instead of everyone going into the service industry, we give them guns and create huge mercenary corporations. Which is a service of sorts, I suppose.
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Kayin

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #9 on: November 27, 2010, 11:21:31 AM »

Work.... has changed...
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Brentai

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #10 on: November 27, 2010, 11:46:48 AM »

Well the implication of the whole thing was that war had basically become a constant make-work scenario for mercenaries, so that all the people who had been marginalized out of meaningful labor would have something to do (while conveniently controlling their own population).  And then the mercenaries themselves were replaced with robot cows so what was the fucking point?

Anyway, I guess "we'll get so bored we'll just spend all our time shooting each other" is one possibility.
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Mongrel

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #11 on: November 27, 2010, 12:16:02 PM »

I think masses of hopelessly unemployed malcontents is a bigger danger than boredom. I guess you can try and buy them off like they do in England (and once did in Rome), but sooner or later the people who still have jobs get mad about that.

Speaking of England, I find it funny that they're trying to throw millions of chronically, generationally unemployed people off the dole while simultaneously tripling tuition fees. Good luck with that plan, geniuses!
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Classic

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #12 on: November 27, 2010, 12:55:01 PM »

I've always preferred:

Work.... Work never changes...

but I guess its patently false.
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Friday

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #13 on: November 27, 2010, 01:02:15 PM »

In the far flung future there is only people with signs dancing on sidewalks
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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #14 on: November 27, 2010, 01:29:31 PM »

We just finished a bit on McDonaldization in Soc class.
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Brentai

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #15 on: November 27, 2010, 03:44:55 PM »

The students in Britain are already mass rioting.  Just another reason why you need to put young people either in the army or in college, stat.

Countries with mandatory service years probably will never have this problem, but the problem with that setup is that it makes totalitarianism so easy.

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Mongrel

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #16 on: November 27, 2010, 04:49:04 PM »

The education question is an interesting one, because everyone agrees that more education is crucial.

Jokes about academia aside, education raises the worth to society of every individual, and it scales with the education level, but it has to be paid for somehow. At the same time, it's also been demonstrated that the extension of a certain tier of education to everyone will water down that tier of education ore often than it raises all the participants to the level expected. 

In addition, it's been determined that money is not necessarily the the primary deterrent to education. What's much more important is your family history. But at the same time, I believe that cheap education greases the wheels for people to get out of generational poverty on the basis of removing the excuse that high costs provide.

It's not a full solution by any means, but high education costs do far more harm than good. Of course the flip side of that is that someone has to pay for all this, and if you try to cut corners, you get shoddy education... which leaves us back at the beginning of the argument (and which is coincidentally where we sort of are now IRL).

EDIT: There's also the problem of people who simply cannot stay in school for 20 years. Which is a LOT of people, actually. These are the people I talk about above, who may not be stupid, but are best suited for jobs which are now in very short supply.

These days, a degree is the new high school diploma. Raising that bar to a Masters degree won't help people who don't want to sit around in lectures to begin with (probably won't help anybody, really).
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Classic

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #17 on: November 27, 2010, 04:53:09 PM »

you need to put young people either in the army or in college, stat.
Combining the two solutions seemed like such a good idea at the time, but has led to some problems state-side. Though I'm willing to bet there's another poster who's more able to discuss the subject.
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Büge

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #18 on: November 27, 2010, 07:15:11 PM »

But SCD disappeared to plot his revenge on Thad, Demogorgon-style.
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Mongrel

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Re: Who needs Skynet?
« Reply #19 on: January 28, 2011, 01:16:28 PM »

Awesome Terminator hand

You can sank ze Chermenz.
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