eBay Bots


Posted by in November's Magazine

I’m a big kid at heart, skinny, wiry, easily influenced. As I head to the supermarket after a binge session of Channel Four’s excellent, seductive Humans I find myself acting a little bit (just a little bit, mind you) like a smart robot – fixed expression, walking too briskly, not groaning when standing up after tying my shoelaces and doing two days worth of grocery shopping in five minutes.    

I glide smoothly between the aisles avoiding people and prams, taking zero time selecting, ignoring all marketing, skimming through self-checkout at a sprint that suits my hyper mood and I am street side before the chill of entrance has worn off. While harassed parents remain inside weighing up the merits of roquefort against dolcellate while their kids nick toffees.

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Yes, it’s fun to be artificial. And, though I’m two years behind the ‘good drama’ curve now that I know longer watch TV regularly I find myself launching straight into what I inevitably come to think of as a companion piece to Humans, the larger scale but no less excellent TV remake of Michael Crichton’s Westworld. The titles masterfully capture 150 years of man’s development of robot creativity, from the primitive marionette and laughing policeman, to the disturbingly natural facial expressions of software bots.

I’ve even seen the Honda robot Asimo ‘in-the-flesh’ at the Science Festival and that was freakier than a Goth in Whitby Abbey. Check it out on YouTube and you’ll see why; it’s a little like a small child or Scaramanga’s dwarf manservant Nik-Nak – played by Hervé Villechaize – in The Man with the Golden Gun but a lot more civil.

As I write this I’ve just finished using my first software bot, it was an eBay sales tool, and I asked sensible questions. Has my 7 inch single of Baccara’s Yes Sir I can Boogie arrived in Macclesfield for Cheryl’s 40th birthday bash? <Yes Mark> How much do I owe Hermes for postage this month? <Sorry, I don’t understand the question>

So early days then but promising if you ask a question that you broadly know the answer to. It’s no less useful than navigating the poorly translated manual to a hard drive recorder ‘on iPlayer BBC app take the control remote and upscroll to menu main’. What could be simpler? It reminds me of Manuel and Basil’s interchange on Fawlty Towers “There is too much butter on those trays…” “No señor…Uno dos tres!” Confusing, but you get there.

Take rail tickets. Why are return tickets only a couple of quid less than two singles? Because bureaucrats love, well, bureaucracy complexity and obscure rules, so someone had to build software that crunches vast datasets, bypassing the ‘eccentricity’ and making it cheaper for you to save money by splitting singles journeys. Check out Tickety Split and you’ll see what I mean.

Smart systems aren’t a threat they’re an opportunity to eliminate the dullest parts of a working life and if they eliminate a few crappy tasks along the way so much the better. Many years ago I was cast into a job hell called ‘listening to Scottish Gas pre-payment customers crying into a telephone whilst lamenting the fact they couldn’t speak to a person who could get their gas put back on’. I won’t lie. It was a bit depressing.

Now there’s no chance of any such contact in a miasma of chat robots and vast Indian call centres, Robbie in Pilrig can now abuse an (obviously) ever-patient software robot about why his direct debit hasn’t been processed. Or, after a one-hour wait, tell Sanjeev in New Delhi that he should expect a horse’s head via Parcelforce International in the next fortnight. Progress, it seems, takes many forms.

The uber-sexy real and imagined bots; IBM’s Watson Jeopardy game, chess’s Deep Blue and Honda’s Asimo get all the press. But it’s the ‘crunching of data and software’ bots that you may not even be aware of that you are already interacting with. Well-written software creates paradigms (a word favoured by poets meaning something like we don’t know what you’re going to write, but here’s a pen it might be useful to you.)

The genius of general purpose computing is to create limitless opportunity for creative people to work quickly and easily, with an image, a line, an idea or a piece of data, away from what information is processed to the way it needs to be used by that person. Machines can handle all the crap while we party. That won’t happen of course, the fantasy of big business paying us to loiter will remain just that. We can but dream.

To use a simpler example: Helix make pencils and have no idea what you will use them for; you might be marking up a darts score, perhaps you’re TS Eliot toiling over The Wasteland, or late shift on offal reclaim totting up cattle slaughtered at the abattoir. So it is with robots – the physical embodiment of an exterior hunt for a greater self. (Think probes on Mars and self-determination on an extra-terrestrial level, but for real.) No little green men need apply because we…are…they. ν

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