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It won’t happen in 2023 | A robot capable of understanding us



What if, rather than predicting 2023, our columnists instead tried to imagine what won’t happen?

It’s been proven that the simple act of smiling is good for your health, both mental and physical. Since I have your well-being at heart, let’s start with a confidence that will relax, I imagine, the muscles of your face.

A few years ago, when companies started offering us the ability to chat with their customer service in writing, on their website, I thought there were humans on the other end. All roped into a room – it was before the fashion for telecommuting – I imagined them typing frantically on their keyboards.

So I started the conversations with a nice “Hello” and I took care to add “please” and “thank you” to my questions. Until the day I understood why no one ever answered me properly and why I was systematically wasting my time during these absurd conversations.

It was not because my interlocutor was not French-speaking or that he was incompetent. I was dealing with robots that my politeness hardly moved.

Pictures of people wearing headsets with microphones were just a decoy.

It’s called a chatbot, my tech-savvy colleague Karim Benessaieh told me. The neologism has been translated as “conversational robot (or agent). We say “robot”, but in reality, it is a computer program designed to simulate a conversation between humans. I didn’t believe there were robots sitting in front of computers, don’t worry!

Admittedly, some companies do hire humans to respond to written customer requests – that reassures me a little about my level of naivety – but that would be the exception. Besides, I haven’t had the chance to experience this type of conversation very often.

So far, all my attempts to troubleshoot these software have ended in failure. It wasn’t much more convincing with simple questions.

So I have no hope that things will change in 2023 and that these robots will be able to effectively perform the work of a human in customer service. It won’t happen, to use the title given to this series of texts.


A conversation between our columnist and a chatbot

First, because progress in recent years has been very slow. At this snail’s speed, it would take an improbable technological miracle for the effectiveness of chatting to suddenly become amazing. This is even truer in French. Moreover, it happened to me on certain sites to have access to the service – if you can call it a service – only in English.

Even though the software ChatGPT makes headlines and wows these days by composing intelligible (albeit full of misinformation) texts, solving consumer problems requires a different level of skill. It’s more complicated. There is sometimes a history, notes in the file. And, above all, a customer to satisfy, which ideally requires tact, judgment and a certain amount of latitude.

It is not uncommon for it to be difficult to make yourself understood by telling your problem on the phone. So imagine in a chat. We see it with text messages: how many times have you written something that has been misunderstood?

The more complex it is, the less likely a robot’s response is to be adequate.

This technology, which is not devoid of interest, is above all effective in leading the consumer directly to a web page containing the information sought. By typing in the phrase “opening hours”, a robot answered me instantly: “Enter the name of your city or your postal code and I will show you our nearest stores! Then a map appeared with the address, phone number and opening hours. Nothing that Google wouldn’t have done, mind you.

As robots get better, we need to tame them to ask our questions effectively. Paragraphs full of details do no good. But this learning is far from self-evident for many people.

The idea of ​​contacting companies without having to press 1 for this and 2 for that is certainly appealing. Especially since the robots work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which in theory makes it possible to obtain answers at any time. But it shouldn’t be the only option available to consumers given the limited capabilities of the technology.

The problem is that it is increasingly difficult to talk to humans, in particular because of the shortage of manpower, so much so that we no longer have much choice to turn to the Web. Or we try the blow of the written conversation in the hope of saving time. But most of the time, the robot prompts us to contact customer service and the experience is disappointing.

A suggested first question to ask: are you a human or a robot?

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