The Digital Is Us -- And We Are the Digital

By god, now I KNOW I’m living in the digital age. It occurred to me today that an oddball encounter that I had with a customer service agent two weeks ago was oddball because . . . the agent was an algorithm, not a human being.

(Although what’s even weirder is that once I figured it out, I was annoyed that it took me so long to catch on.)

Two weeks ago, the company whose platform I use for this website, Squarespace, launched a new version of its product. So I upgraded. And immediately ran into problems creating new blog posts. 

I was surprised because Squarespace deals aces when it comes to providing a bug-free, easy-to-use-and-design product. The problems I encountered weren’t major — I had trouble creating block quotes and hyperlinks while writing blog posts.

So I emailed customer service, which has always been aces as well. (I’ve had to use it because I’m a moron about some things not because of woes with the site’s guts.) 

What followed were a string of emails back and forth between me and various people at customer service. I explained the problem and then a customer agent replied with some instructions. 

But some of the emails I received had nothing to do with the issues that I’d described in my emails. In one case, for example, I explained that I couldn’t create a hyperlink. What I got back was an explanation about how to turn a draft into a published blog post.

I was all, like, wha??? And as the day wore on, I kept getting more random email replies. Finally I gave up. (I’d figured out that the problem was Chrome: it wasn’t playing nice, as the geeks say, with the new version of Squarespace. So I used Firefox to create my blog posts.)

Still, I was bugged by those random replies. It was as if the person at the other end didn’t understand English, or hadn’t actually read my emails. Or was an idiot. And that didn't sound like Squarespace, which, again, has always had superb customer service.

Today, however, I realized: some of my emails had been answered by a version of Amelia.

"Amelia," as imagined by its creator, ipSoft

"Amelia," as imagined by its creator, ipSoft

According to the folks who created it

Amelia, our cognitive knowledge worker, interfaces on human terms. She is a virtual agent who understands what people ask – even what they feel – when they call for service.
Using the same instruction manuals as, for example, call center operators, Amelia can be deployed straight from the cloud in a fraction of the time. She learns as she works and provides high-quality responses consistently, every day of the year, in every language your customers speak.

I first read about Amelia almost a month ago in a tech column in the Wall Street Journal, where Christopher Mims wrote

her real talent isn't regurgitating information; it's solving problems.
Here's a typical conversation with Amelia, this one in another area of her expertise, diagnosing car trouble.
Joe: "Hello, I'm stuck here and my car won't start."
Amelia: "I'm sorry to hear that. Could you take a look at your dashboard? Is the battery light on?"
Joe: "No."
Amelia: "OK. Are any of the lights in your car on?"
Joe: "No."
Amelia: "It could be an issue with your battery. Do you have jumper cables with you?"

I’d forgotten about that Mims column until today when my brain suddenly realized, and then instantly told me, that some of those emails were obviously machine generated. The folks at Squarespace are teaching Amelia how to respond to customers’ emails. And I bet that anyone who had a problem like the ones I had two weeks ago are probably getting more helpful response more often. Because that’s probably how fast Amelia learns to “think.”

There’s no big point here except this: When I read Mims’ column several weeks ago, I remember wondering if I would ever encounter Amelia and what it would be like.

And now I know: Somewhat frustrating. Kind of comical (because some of the replies were so random). But otherwise: spookily normal.

Folks, it ain’t the 1990s anymore.