Shopping online for Xmas? AI chatbots know whether you want to be naughty or nice

Something for the Weekend, Sir? It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you have clicked on Add to Basket.

T-800, eat your endoskeletal lubricant pump out: I’m talking about the new wave of ecommerce virtual assistants. It seems that you are not the only one to have noticed that responding to the “Do you need help?” popup while shopping online was about as productive as telling Eliza about your mother in 1992. Big things are on their way. What the e-retail industry needs, it has belatedly decided, is better automated customer service.

To achieve this, according to EBI.AI, the humble chatbot apparently needs to be programmed to recognise a much wider variety of human idioms, and further programmed to accept human-entered responses as instructions rather than idle chitchat. Or, as we refer to programming these days, it needs artificial intelligence.

Given that the alternative solution of employing human intelligence in customer service is obviously a bit too off-the-wall for modern retail, let’s be thankful for small mercies.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve always assumed that the problem with existing customer query chatbots is that they are purposefully designed not to answer customer queries. Instead, they exist to distract your attention by channelling you as quickly as possible into the inescapable loop of its Finder Oriented Browse-Object Feedback Field (FOB-OFF) routine. You will never get answers because it has already decided that you are asking the wrong questions.

For example, a typical bot is programmed to recognise these kinds of input:

  • “I want to buy a product.”
  • “I want to know more about a product.”
  • “I want to provide positive feedback about a product.”
  • “I want to tell you about my mother.”

EBI.AI reckons an artificially enhanced intelligent bot should be able to respond the following:

  • “Is my local store open?” [Obviously the answer during lockdown is “No” so that’s an easy one.]
  • “The item is marked ‘out of stock’. When will it be ‘in stock’?” [Another easy one as the honest answer will invariably be: “Never.” Or possibly the friendlier: “Not in your lifetime, pal.”]

Again, maybe it’s just me, but I’m much more likely to type something like this into an online shop’s chatbot window:

  • “Your flimsy/cheap/poorly manufactured product turned up broken/torn/unresponsive/in a million tiny razor-sharp shards at the bottom of the box. Please collect your junk at the earliest opportunity.”
  • “Your delivery estimate was 3 working days. Did you mean days on which you trouble yourself to get out of bed to do some work or just weekdays with a letter W in them?”
  • “I am unable to log in to my account. A help message tells me that I can correct this by logging in to my account. Could you locate the copywriter responsible for your site’s UX interactions and punch him in the face for me?”
  • “My mother says I was an unplanned pregnancy which she has always regretted and I have been a great disappointment to her. Do you sell shiny floor polish for wooden staircases?”

I understand that local business directory Yell is equally gearing up for idiomatic human interrogation, this time via smart speakers and digital assistants.

  • “Alexa, I need a local plumber!”
  • “Alexa, I’ve broken down! Where’s the nearest garage?”
  • “Alexa, find me a computer repair shop whose phone number is unobtainable, doesn’t have a working website or offer any opening times, and is located next to the refuse shed at the arse end of an industrial estate.”

Oh yes, open that digital front door, ecommerce guys: the Shop Doctor is in.

Joking apart, there will come a time when proper AI will understand interactions like that. In the interim, it remains just so much smoke and mirrors. Even the Turing Test is by definition a parlour magic trick: not a test of artificial intelligence at all but merely a dramatised performance revealing the illusion of human perception.

This is OK as long as we remind ourselves it’s illusory. Calling something AI doesn’t make it AI. Problems arise when those whose interests lie in convincing suckers customers that tech is rather more tech than it really is get involved.

Take cryptocurrency, for example. It’s crypto! That means it’s encrypted! That means it’s locked up and safe, yeah? Like, it’s all clever and crypty and tech and stuff, right?

To date, $13.6bn has been stolen through 330 blockchain hacks. The clever and crypty bit about blockchain lies in its data self-validation. That is, effectively unbreakable self-validation assisted by the shared open visibility guaranteed by distributed ownership: you can’t fake a transaction without everyone seeing, knowing and tracing what you’ve done. Cryptocurrency itself isn’t a digital lock-up safe, it’s just digital cash; it’s no more secure than holding a bunch of Boulton-Watts in your hand.

Blockchain wallet hacks were the most profitable form of crypto theft, costing victims just under $199m per breach. Those thinking that putting their ill-gotten wallets into cryptocurrency exchanges might want to think again as these were the second most hacked places of all blockchain breaches. Anyway, you get the idea. It’s an illusion.

There is a long history of illusory ideas in retail technology. My favourite remains the shoe-fitting fluoroscope, the infamous podiatric radiation self-contaminator.

Less harmful but arguably just as silly is the (and I quote) “interactive sports team kit” as worn by England rugby club Sale Sharks. Wow, techno shirts! Do they show X-rays of the players? No, this world-first in sporting apparel interactivity boils down to a QR code printed on the front.

It’s not just any old 3D barcode, oh no. The VCode can be can be scanned in a 170-degree arc, on moving objects and up to 100 metres away. This means players on an opposing team at the height of a game could launch into a face-on tackle, whip out a smartphone, scan the QR code on the opponent’s shirt and “access exclusive content, player interviews, tickets and a whole range of commercial offers” as they hurl him/her in a 170˚ arc into the mud.

It’s a secure QR code, mind, by which I think that means it’s unlikely to be hacked and lead to “exclusive content” of a rather more adult nature.

As I said, big things are on their way.

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Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He deliberately did not embed a link to Stripchat; it was not an accidental omission. He feels that The Register could do without that kind of SEO and, besides, you probably have it bookmarked already. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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