My Service Bot

I have a peculiar new friend who is in the habit of referring to everything using possessive pronouns. At first I found it very confusing.

"We should come back and visit our house," he said to me the other day, as we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge.

"Our house?" I asked.

"The house we were looking at." He gestured to a weather-beaten brick house half buried in a rock outcropping on the Marin side of the bridge. We had been admiring the structure's barren weirdness, alone in the middle of cold tides, its windows blown out long ago. "We found it," he elaborated, grinning. "It's ours. We own it."

This unconscious use of possessives, while charming coming from my friend, nevertheless made me think of a pernicious new phase in ideological flimflammery from the Bush II regime. As David Brooks and other pundits have commented, President George W. Bush's slogan of the year -- debuting soon in his State of the Union address -- is going to be "the ownership society." Yes, boys and girls, this year we're all going to be liberated through our possessions. Sure, you may be a renter whose job hangs by a thread, whose health care costs are skyrocketing, and whose children will never be able to afford college, but you are part of the great fabric of the United States because you own things. Even if all you possess are the clothes on your back, those shreds of property make you a part of our great country.

It's as if the entertainment industry's battle for copyright control has finally infected political rhetoric at the deepest level. Historically U.S. citizens might have expressed their connection to this country through their votes. Now the citizen says, "I own property, therefore I am American."

Since I'm already in free-association mode, I might as well tell you this also reminds me of something seemingly unrelated. Amacom Press just sent me its latest wacky tech manual by Peter Plantec. It's called Virtual Humans: Creating the Illusion of Personality. The cover is decorated with four head shots of a woman who looks like the hero from a SciFi channel series: perky, white, short-but-not-dykey hair, cheeks flushed with health, neck encased in a collar that suggests she's wearing a uniform of the future. She's got four expressions on her face: happy, sad, angry, and confused (or perhaps horny -- it's hard to tell). And she's 100 percent CGI.

Plantec's book is a guide for creating what he calls V-people, social bots that businesses can use to replace service workers or game players online. Programmed Ask Jeeves-style to answer questions in a way that sounds natural, and to deploy friendly facial expressions at the right moments, V-people are the bank tellers and customer service reps of the future. According to Plantec and researchers like Cory Kidd at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, people warm up to V-people fairly quickly after their initial moment of disbelief that the person talking to them and smiling is just a program.

Kidd conducted a series of psychological experiments last year showing that people respond to animated and automated creatures in almost exactly the same way they respond to humans. During a conversation with a virtual creature, people are generally polite, make eye contact, and even smile and nod as if they are talking to someone who cares about whether they are paying attention.

Plantec writes in his book that his main concern about the ethics of using V-people in customer service situations is that users tend to credit machines with more honesty and innocence than they do their fellow humans. In trial runs of his V-people, he reports, users "took what the V-person said as truth or error, but never considered that the character was trying to deceive them.... After all, how could a virtual human have ulterior motives ... how could they have any motives at all?" He points out that V-people would be the perfect con artists, programmed by their makers to bilk people out of money while maintaining the look and feel of complete credibility.

But I'm not concerned that bots will start taking advantage of the gullible. I'm worried about how these V-people will fit into the ownership society. They will be workers and yet also the possessions of various corporations. Will virtual humans blur the line between service work and outright slavery? If a customer service company can choose to hire a woman in Bangalore or a perky white chick with a shiny smile out of a box, which do you think they'll pick?

And what will the woman in Bangalore have to do to compete with her virtual sister?

Annalee Newitz (v-columnist@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd whose possessions are mostly licensed to her by copyright holders. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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