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When I decided on a holiday to central Europe, I should have known that the ghost of Kafka might make an appearance, even though this was Vienna rather than Prague. I won’t name the budget airline in question, but suffice to say this firm has a policy of whacking customers with a hefty penalty fee if they fail to check in on the app at least three hours before departure.

On attempting this, however, the app informed me that I’d “overpaid by £8” and should contact customer service for a refund before proceeding. This hotline was expensive to call – so much so that it was bound to absorb the £8 pretty quickly, yet saying “I don’t care if I overpaid slightly, just check me into the darn flight” wasn’t an option either. Instead I was bounced from one automated customer service assistant to another, each dispensing bland and sometimes contradictory wisdom.

My first port of call was a chatbot, which demanded numerous details about my flight, before giving up and instructing me to “speak to one of our live agents”. Inevitably, however, “all our live agents [were] busy”. The phone hotline didn’t work either. So I found myself locked in conversation with the chatbot again. It demanded the same details and provided the same answer as before. After many more tries, I contacted the airline on Twitter. What appeared to be a social media bot replied, which directed me towards the chatbot, which told me to contact a live agent and, well, you get the picture.

It was then that I realised I was lost in cyberspace – trapped inside the circular logic of several sputtering chatbots, with no prospect of speaking to anyone with a pulse. My search for a human grew ever more frantic. For the gazillionth time, the chatbot demanded my flight confirmation code. “I need to speak to a real person,” I wrote. “I haven’t found any flights with the confirmation code ‘I need to speak to a real person’ in the schedule,” it replied. I even tracked down the airline’s “head of customer experience” on LinkedIn and tried to add him. (Being head of customer service at a budget airline must be a bit like being head of dodo protection at the WWF.) But to no avail.

We’re used to hearing about AI stealing our jobs; that inexorable march that has been under way ever since Deep Blue first defeated Garry Kasparov at chess. But not all robots are created equally. This one certainly didn’t pass the Turing test. Its responses displayed an automated cheeriness in direct contrast to the seething rage on the other end of the line. Sometimes the social media chatbot would answer criticism with a little joke or quip. “I strongly disagree,” it said to one person who’d issued a disobliging tweet on my behalf. “Best budget airline, in my humble opinion.” It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so soul-destroying. There are only so many times a person can hear “have a nice day” from the AI when it’s been instrumental in ensuring that you don’t.

Eventually I received a €45 fine, which I’d have paid both ways if not for a kindly woman at the airline desk who took pity on me. But imagine if a family of five were hit with that, or a hard-up student, or an elderly passenger less au fait with the obligatory technology? It would be holiday-ruining. In the US, President Biden is targeting junk fees, the extra costs corporations tack on to catch out consumers. I suspect it will prove disproportionately popular; the easiest of wins for any government regardless of political positioning.

Increasingly, customer service is being farmed out to virtual assistants or bots, especially since the pandemic. Robot AIs invariably use female names and avatars; domestic advice-giving, it seems, is one of the few areas of public life to operate under a clear matriarchy. We’re told this technology exists to make things easier and safer; but for thousands of consumers, especially the elderly, it’s done the opposite. For many bank users, dealing with automated customer service over the phone proves more frustrating and time-consuming than queuing up and going to the branch in person. Companies are exploiting technological advances to distance themselves still further from their obligations to the consumer.

It’s one thing for robots to serve as intermediaries or facilitators of human contact, but when they are the sole arbiters of decision-making, everything falls apart. During the Noughties, there were attempts by car-rental companies to use GPS technology to track the speeds of drivers and issue arbitrary fines to anyone deemed to be breaching local speed limits. This provoked a public backlash and eventually, an intervention from the Supreme Court – perhaps owing to a sense that this violated some basic rule of society, that it simply wasn’t cricket. We were supposed to control the technology, not the other way around.

Fundamentally, there is a deep-seated need in all of us to be heard and acknowledged. Perhaps programmers of the future will design “empathy robots”, trained just to listen to us complain. I’d call mine Sybil, in honour of the endlessly circular conversations initiated by Basil Fawlty’s wife with her friend Audrey (“Ooh, I know”). As I have learnt, our robot overlords leave much to be desired. What we were told would make our lives easier isn’t just making them more difficult, but trolling us along the way.


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