The tech community is incredibly excited about chatbots. Just this month Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that chatbots would "fundamentally revolutionize how computing is experienced by everybody." VCs are salivating over the possibilities. And hey, lots of consumers are probably pretty stoked to trade unhelpful offshore customer service reps for an instantly available AI helper too.
But all this excitement belies a little known reality, according to a fascinating and in-depth recent article by Ellen Huet on Bloomberg Technology. The tech behind chatbots is far from ready for prime time, she reveals, and unbeknownst to many customers, companies are often covering this up by employing "humans pretending to be robots pretending to be humans."
"In the past two years, companies offering do-anything concierges (Magic, Facebook's M, GoButler); shopping assistants (Operator, Mezi); and e-mail schedulers (X.ai, Clara) have sprung up. The goal for most of these businesses is to require as few humans as possible. People are expensive. They don't scale. They need health insurance. But for now, the companies are largely powered by people, clicking behind the curtain and making it look like magic," Huet writes.
Pretending to be a robot is dull (and secretive) work.
The deeply reported piece is well worth a read in full, but one of the highlights from the article is the first person tales of those who actually had jobs reviewing the responses of chatbots and responding in their stead when their messages didn't pass muster. In short, it sounds like a terrible job.
Aside from the fact that companies don't want the world to know they exist, these jobs have a more immediate drawback -- they require long hours and stultifying work. "GoButler's website said the service uses human-assisted AI to fulfill customer requests 24/7," writes Huet, but former employees told her "the only automated part of the service they saw was the occasional marketing text message. That meant humans had to be on duty at all times."
Former employees recounted being "required to eat lunch at their desks and, last December, attended the office holiday party in 30-minute shifts so as not to have too many people away from their computers at once," among other Orwellian details. Others who took similar gigs at other chatbot companies had similar tales to tell.
Taking off the training wheels?
While training the AIs that power chatbots to be better at understanding and speaking like humans sounds like a thankless job, Huet stresses it's not necessarily one that's going to be around forever. Most companies are planning on reducing the human input required for their services over time as the tech improves, though some will retain at least some behind-the-scenes human help over the long term. (If you're looking for more details, here's a deeper dive into how X.ai seeing its tech developing.)
But that doesn't concern all the human chatbot impersonators Huet spoke with. One such employee at X.ai told her, "he wasn't worried about his job being replaced by a bot. It was so boring he was actually looking forward to not having to do it anymore."
Were you aware how much humans are still helping out chatbots behind the scenes?