Bot seriously...

HAL was a good guy. Or so he seemed.

If you can remember back when 2001: A Space Odyssey first appeared to be oh, so far off into the future, you may recall a time when automation was painted as a far-off societal concern threatening jobs of factory workers someday.

Back in the analog past, it might have been a pipedream before the friendly clerk at your neighborhood pharmacy would be replaced by next-generation HALs. That was way before the elimination of the term "receptionist" from our collective conscuousness.

Over the past few months, as I've begun dabbling in the estate of my only brother, I've had more confrontations with bots than I care to remember. They're everywhere, as you're of course aware -- unless your mind has been taken over by constant AI dealings bent on neutralizing any memory of what life was like as a full-fledged, pre-bot human.
What I've learned, especially after trying to grieve while being confronted with a Kafkaesque world of humanoids, was that AI is shorthand for "Absolutely Infuriating."

It may be relatively easy -- at least for the time being -- to shun the Robot Register at our local supermarket, in favor of the rare surviving human employee checking you out with your purchases. But trying to interact with any utility, bank, retailer or health provider without being confronted by a voice greeting us with the news that we need to listen carefully "as all our menu options may have changed," and then presenting you with a series of options, each of which presents more options and yet more options.

If you manage to endure all the limbs of the phone tree unscathed and manage to convey that it's a homosapien being you need to speak with, you're punished with a warning that "all our representatives are currently assisting other customers, but your call is very important to us" and perhaps then entertained with an interminable rendition of "Greatest Elevator Hits of the 1980s" before being alllowed to speak with an actual human. If you haven't first been accidentally disconnedted from that call, which was being recorded, no doubt as entertainment for bot holiday parties.

As executor of the newly created estate for the ultimate people-person who was my brother, with a Fibber McGee's closet of bills, accounts and arcane rules for dealing with them, I've found that nearly all the humans who've been saddled with dealing with those of us who insist on speaking with Actual Intelligence are in fact reading from a script as I try to (just imagine) communicate. This theater of the absurd script has, in fact, turned even these last remaining living employees into robots.

"I'm calling to disconnect the phone for my brother, who's died."

"Verizon is so sorry for your loss. But the subsciber is the only one who can terminate an account."

"But he's dead."

That wasn't in the script, ergo the human was stymied. So was another worker who insisted she needed to send an email for verification that I was who I said I was, in response to getting billed for an Internet acount of my brother that I'd already discontinued.

"Wait. That account's been discontinued," I tried to explain. "How am I supposed to respond to your email?"

As we try to interact with neo-corporate America, we're increaingly punished for not doing business on their terms, on websites that coerce us to register and prove again to a robot that "I am not a robot."

And if we search under "Contact" to find our way to a human, we discover they're all gone. The only phone number listed, if one exists, is a centralized, circuitous phone tree linking to a bot that responds only to FAQs. For any Infrequently Asked Questions, woe unto you.

A recent article in The New York Times told about ChatGPT, the new "cutting-edge A.I. chatbot" that can do all sorts of jaw-dropping stunts, including, at one human's request, writing "a biblical verse in the style of the King James Bible explaining how to remove a peanut butter sandwich from a VCR.” I'm all for zany entertanment. And yet, as life on Planet Earth grows ever-zanier, I long for those days when we weren't so man-ipulated to beg, soll over and play dead for the benefit of corporations seemingly bent on doing away with gainfully employed customers.

Even as I was writing news stories for years about artificial intelligence research, robotic factory workers and more, it was becoming apparent that our own newsroom job demands were becoming less humane. More and more, we were filling the requirements of machines that we'd "thought" were designed to make our lives easier. But with each CAPTCHA to demonstrate my human abilities, it's clear I'm simply being trained to explain how to remove a peanut butter sandwich from a VCR.

The next time I'm asked to check off "I am not a robot?" I'm going to insist on be allowed to respond in an essay.

Because it's getting trickier to know.


Please Follow the Almanac on Facebook

Check out my books, Inner Landscapes and Good Will & Ice Cream