Alan Turing was a brilliant British mathematician, cryptography expert and computer scientist who was persecuted for his open homosexuality. That persecution even included prosecution for homosexual activities, which were illegal in England at the time.
The persecution continued until Turing’s suicide in 1954. He ingested cyanide. His mother disputed that it was suicide. She suggested that he accidentally swallowed some cyanide that remained on his fingers after an amateur chemistry experiment, but the coroner ruled it a suicide.
Turing was only a few weeks away from his 42nd birthday at the time of his death.
The above information about Turing’s life and death, and about his being persecuted because of his homosexuality, has absolutely nothing to do with the primary subject of this post. However, I wanted to write something controversial early in this piece. That way, people who can’t be bothered to read to the end will have something to comment on before they head off in search of a Web site that will dish some dirt on which celebrities are sleeping together, or some other absolutely vital issue such as that.
In Turing’s day, computers were enormous beasts with less processing power than today’s smart phones. They were used by only a select few who accessed them through “dumb terminals”? connected directly to the computer.
Back then, no one had a computer on his or her desk, and certainly not at home. Plus, perish the thought, there was no Internet.
Clearly, the common man and woman was horribly deprived in Turing’s day. They couldn’t spend every waking hour surfing the Web to read utterly inane blogs such as this one. It breaks one’s heart to realize how empty their lives must have been.
Again, that’s not the least bit relevant to my primary subject, but I wanted to give those people who were too inhibited to comment on the shameful persecution of Turing something else to comment on before they wander off, ignoring the meat of my missive.
At the same time that Turing was being persecuted for his homosexuality, he was also being honored, probably by the same people, for breaking the seemingly unbreakable German ciphers during World War II. However, what Turing is probably most famous for in some circles, particularly among computer geeks, is devising what became known as the “Turing Test.”?
… Ah, thank goodness! We’re finally getting a little closer to my topic for the day.
Even back in the early days of computing, people were already thinking of artificial intelligence. The question was, what was an appropriate measure of whether a computer had achieved artificial intelligence? Turing proposed a test that would provide that measure.
Put simply, the Turing Test works like this: Put someone in a room and give him or her a computer terminal. (Remember, in Turing’s day you communicated with computers through terminals, not through another computer connected to the Internet.) In another room or rooms, place a computer and another human, both of which are hidden from the tester. The tester can communicate with the computer and the person, but the tester can’t see which one he or she is communicating with.
If, after considerable interaction with both the computer and the person, the tester can’t tell which is the computer and which is the person then, according to the Turing Test, the computer is exhibiting artificial intelligence.
That’s a nice theory, but after a recent customer disservice experience I’ve come to realize that there is a flaw in the Turing Test. What if the reason you can’t tell which is the computer and which is the person is not because the computer is not displaying human-like intelligence, but rather because the person is incapable of rising above automaton-like behavior?
Bingo! That’s my topic for today. Congratulations to all of you who stuck with me for this long. Sorry; I don’t have any prizes to offer for that, but you can pat yourself on the back for having an attention span that greatly exceeds that of the population norm.
Before I continue, I need to go off on one more tangent. I absolutely, positively promise that this will be, without exception, my very last digression, unless I think of some more before I’m done.
I need to state here that my only complaint against the company that I’m about to talk about is this one customer disservice incident. It is, to the best of my knowledge, an otherwise very upstanding company. It offers a number of superb online services, most of which are free (although often advertising-supported). In fact, I happily use some of those services, often several times a day, and they provide me great value.
What’s more, I know that this company would, without a doubt, never do anything evil in the pursuit of profits. I know this because it explicitly says so itself, so it must be true.
Unfortunately, because the incident I’m about to discuss is somewhat negative, some people will believe, despite my honest protestations to the contrary, that I think this is a bad company. To prevent that happening, I will thoroughly, impenetrably disguise the company by simply referring to it as “G“?.
But, as I said, I digress.
About a week ago, I received a piece of mail promoting one of G‘s fee-based services. This promotion was sent through the real mail on two pages (a covering letter and a one-page brochure) of real paper that were folded inside a real envelope. Thus, rather than relying solely on virtually free electrons, G spent real money on real paper, real postage and real handling. Really.
The promotion offered me a $100 credit for the fee-based service, thereby allowing me to try it risk-free. This sounded like a good deal to me so I went to G‘s Web site and followed the instructions in G‘s letter and brochure.
I opened up an account, created an ad (its an advertising service), went to the billing page, and entered my billing information, including my credit card number and expiry date.
The credit card was necessary because G stated that it would automatically begin charging me if I don’t cancel the ad campaign before my free credit runs out. Providing my credit card in this way would normally make me very nervous, which is not surprising because I worry about absolutely everything, but, as I said, G says it won’t be evil so I entered my credit card with confidence.
On the page asking for my credit card there is a link that said, “Do you have a promotion code?”? As the instructions in G‘s brochure told me to do, I clicked on this link. A box opened up where I could enter the promotion code to claim my credit. I entered the promotion code and clicked the submit button.
An error message came back telling me it was an invalid promotion code. I assumed this meant that the promotion code was incorrect and not that it was missing a limb, although, because the error message was written rather than spoken, I couldn’t be sure that my assumption was correct.
I checked the code I entered. It was exactly what was mailed to me. I tried pulling out the hyphens that were in the code. … Invalid promotion code.
G‘s letter showed the code’s alphabetic characters printed in upper case and that’s how I entered them, but, just to be safe, I tried changing the upper case to lower case. … Invalid promotion code.
I tried putting back the hyphens and leaving the lower case. … Invalid promotion code.
At this point, I figured it was time to contact G‘s customer service department. I said, it was time to contact G’s customer service department. Customer service department? What’s that?
There was no customer service contact information on the letter or the brochure that G mailed me.
I spent considerable time searching G‘s Web site looking for a way to speak to a customer service representative. Finally, I found a form I could fill in. No phone number. No email address. No online chat facility. Just a form I could fill in and wait to, hopefully, hear back from G.
Much to my surprise, when I went to my computer the next morning there was an email from “someone”? who called “himself”? “William.”? The email was sufficiently dry and form-letter-like that it could have easily been written by a computer without any artificial intelligence, maybe a computer nicknamed William.
“William”? apologized for the trouble I was having and told me to do pretty much what I had, through the online form, already told G I had done.
There was one little twist in the instructions “William”? sent me, so I went back to the billing screen and followed “William”?’s instructions exactly. … Invalid promotion code.
I hit the reply button on “William”?’s email and told him/it about the result of my efforts.
The next morning, I got another email from “William.”? Again he/it was very polite. He/it apologized, referred to a few words of what I told him/it in my reply email, ignored the rest, and then offered me another dry, computer-like response as to how I should try to resolve the problem.
I followed his instructions. And, again … Invalid promotion code.
This went on for a couple more days. Then, last Thursday morning, I got another email from “William.”? This email suggested that I do a screen capture of the filled-in billing screen and email it to him.
Remember, the filled-in billing screen has my credit card information on it. Ah, “William,”? I don’t think so; not even if your employer does promise to not be evil.
I sent “William”? an email telling him/it that I wasn’t going to do that and that I had already wasted more time on this than it’s worth, so please drop it.
The next morning I found another email from “William”? in my email inbox, This one again apologized for my frustration and said that I could black out the credit card information after taking the screen capture. I sent a reply repeating that I’d already wasted more time on this than it’s worth, so, as far as I’m concerned, the matter is closed.
I haven’t heard back from “William.”? However, that was Friday and this is the weekend. I await Monday.
My question is, is “William”? a person or a computer? I really couldn’t tell from his/it’s wooden, form-letter-like responses. “William”? did pick up on a word or two of my emails, but ignored most of the gist of them.
The fact I got responses only on the morning after I sent my feedback form/email, rather than almost instantly, leads me to believe he/it was human. Then again, I was a programmer in an earlier life. I know it’s easy to tell the computer to hold the responses for some time in order to make it look as if they came from a human rather than from a high-speed computer.
Just as an aside””this isn’t much of a tangent; it just appears that way; please read on””I’m in the Eastern Time Zone of North America. The responses arrived in the middle of my night. If William is, in fact, a human, I’m guessing that “William”? is a pseudonym and his real name is probably a little more exotic than that.
One final bonus question. Regardless of whether “William”? is a human or a computer, why would G spend real money to send me a promotion that had the potential to turn me from a prospective customer into a satisfied customer, only to then work so hard at turning me into a pissed-off non-customer?
No, don’t answer that. G“”and, before you ask, no, I’m not going to identify the company; no how; no way””earns billions of dollars a year, so G must know what it’s doing. I earn somewhat less than that, so I probably don’t. Never mind.
This has been one of my longer posts. Thanks for continuing to the end. Now, if you’re reading this at your place of business, get the hell back to work! Times are still tough. Your boss may be just around the corner. You should at least try to look busy.
Categorised as: customer service