Why does Artificial Intelligence seem so stupid?

By Fay Jacobs  |  Illustration by Rob Waters
From the Holiday 2018 issue


Artificial Intelligence, which is supposed to make our lives easier, is actually making them harder. I can’t explain this conundrum except to say that machines are so smart these days they’ve conspired to make us do their work. Take my groceries. Please.

The smart checkout registers have convinced us to weigh our own cucumbers, scan all our groceries and bag them ourselves so there’s nobody to curse out later when the chips are in crumbles. How is this easier than waiting a minute in line for a human, who needs a paycheck, to do all this?

And the more the machines know, the more I have to know. I never cared what kind of tomatoes I was buying. The cashier knew. I was lucky I know they grew outside. Now I have to be sure to put the right tag on the Heirlooms.

And robots have ruined the airport. Last summer on our way to France I was directed to a nifty baggage-weighing robot by the lone employee at the check-in counter. He asked the machine to do the baggage handling while he twiddled his thumbs.

 I was dumbfounded by a robot that (or is it “who”?) weighed my suitcase and spit out a baggage tag specific to my destination.

 So instead of dragging my suitcase to the counter and picking it up only once before it flew to Paris, I had to schlepp it across the concourse to the robot, hoist it up on the scale, wait for smarty pants to guess its weight, lift it off the scale, affix the baggage tag myself, then roll the damn thing back to the counter.

By this time there was a long line because a traveler up front had affixed the tag backwards, increasing the likelihood of his never seeing his Samsonite again. Hopefully, in a few months the robot will have artificial limbs programmed to affix the tags correctly too.

When I finally got to the breathing person at the desk, he stood there, hands folded across his chest as I bench-pressed my bag up once again, dumping it onto the conveyor belt, giving it a shove to get going and praying Mr. Luggage Roomba had properly deduced where I was headed.

This is easier? For whom? Air France?

Then there’s the original aggravating convenience of robotic telephone answering systems. All I wanted to do was let the bank know I was going overseas so they would approve my transactions there. It used to be easy. Call the number, press zero and you got an agent who made a notation and said “bon voyage.”

Now, the artificially intelligent phone robot conducts an in-depth interview first. Prior to being connected to a human being, this was the exact conversation:

Please enter the last four digits of your card number.

Please enter your zip code.

Your balance is __________ (a frightening number).

Your next minimum payment is __________ (yipes!).

Your remaining credit is ___________ (a number that rhymes with ‘hero’).

Your last payment of __________ was received on __________ (just under the wire).

If you would like to request a credit increase press 1. (Good god, no!)

If you wish to report a lost or stolen card press 2. (Who wants to steal a maxed-out card?)

To hear your reward balance press 3. (Yippee, I can get two free Starbucks macchiatos for spending my dog’s inheritance.)

At this point I suspected I’d be home from the Alps before talking to somebody with a pulse.

To call about travel plans, press 4. (Finally!)

But no, cruel joke. Pressing 4 I heard:

For a balance inquiry press 1.

For a new PIN press 2.

For travel plans … (YAY!!!) press 3.

Then comes “Please enter the three-digit code on the back of your card.” (AUUUGGGGHHHHH!!!!!)

“Enter the first three letters of your mother’s maiden name. (Oh for crap’s sake.)

What’s next, blood type and Super G discount card?

Suffice it to say that when I finally checked in with a human I didn’t even sound excited about the trip.

So what’s next for artificial intelligence? If robots really want to be helpful they would hover around the house, telling me when leftovers become science projects, where I put my phone this time, and to please remember to put the reusable grocery bags back into the car.

For that matter, the robot could take me shopping, remind me to bring the reusable bags into the store, tutor me on the difference between Heirloom and Brandywine tomatoes, and stop me from trying to use the maxed-out credit card. A robot saving me from the humiliation of a card denied would be truly useful.

That’ll be the day. Coming soon.

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