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Underbaked AI

When “helpful” chatbots create more problems than they can fix.

It seems that everybody is talking about artificial intelligence these days — seeing it either as a gateway to easy living or an end-of-days profession killer. As usual, the reality will land somewhere in the middle of those extremes, and I am putting together an article on some of the real-world uses of AI in its various formats for the custom installation industry.

While there are myriad applications on the horizon for AI, there is one already in widespread use — the “helpful” chatbots that pop out of the bottom right of web pages and its automated call-in equivalent. Wondering why helpful is in quotes? Let me explain.

Good and Bad AI
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Recent underbaked AI experience number one occurred when trying to do the simplest of things — order a pizza. The shop of choice was a small, East Coast chain, so I tried the website first, but it did not have one of the key foods I was looking for (baby meatballs, for the curious). No problem, I will just call the local store and place my order the way it has been done for more than half a century.

Only I did not get a human on the other end, I got AI pretending to be human, using fake keyboard clicks to fill the silence of when it was processing the order. Fine, I’m progressive.

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I proceeded to give the order, but, when read back to me at the end, each item had been multiplied by three. I tried to correct the bot, but it was not getting it, so I hung up in frustration. A few seconds later, my phone rang, as I expected it to, and there was a real human on the other end who asked me if I wanted to complete the order. “Not that order, but, yes, I would like to place an order.”

The baby meatballs were delicious.

Underbaked AI experience number two resulted from me being an absolute bonehead and accidentally sending a package to my old work address from five years ago that is now a co-op. I had ordered it from Target, and had I discovered the error before it shipped, I could have fixed it within its app. I did not. The email message said to contact the shipper, which was FedEx.

I tracked the package and clicked “change shipping address.” And was asked to create an account, which I did. Once I got beyond that, the “change shipping address” option was gone. But they had an AI chatbot floating around the page, so…

While there were prompts that appeared they could help, nothing did. Then I noticed an 800 number for FedEx in the original email from Target, so I called that and got another chatbot. That one got me to be able to hold it at a FedEx location, but it only allowed a choice of three near the original location, which was a long way from my house and not the ideal choice for a large, 30-pound box.

There is a FedEx location directly across the street from my office, so I decided I would go there first thing in the morning and see if a human could help me. Mind you, this was all on the same day I had ordered it.

Standing in the FedEx store, I was told I would have to call the 800 number. When I explained that I could not get a human, the clerk told me to call the store I was in, and she would connect me directly to a human. It worked — although I was told only the shipper could change the address, despite what I was told in the original email.

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I steeled myself as I called Target’s 800 number and navigated the phone tree — only to be pleasantly surprised by getting a human on the end on the first try! She didn’t seem happy to hear from me, but there was a charming mid-western lilt in her voice.

She saw the problem and said she could fix it if her manager said it was okay. I was put on hold for a little bit, and the manager got on the phone with me and fixed the problem.

So, while the obvious takeaway from all this is to double-check your shipping address before ordering, the other one is to back up your chatbot with an easy way to reach a human — whether that is someone on your staff or a service like Parasol.

Nothing that I was doing was a high-ticket purchase, but if I were looking to spend tens of thousands of dollars and I had a question I wanted answered that the chatbot miffed on, having someone real to talk to would go a long way.