24 centimetres, I didn’t know they stacked it that high

Stack-Up (1986)

It’s funny how your job description gets thrown out from under you. I was initially employed as a Customer Success Manager, which is a nice and fancy way of saying a Project Manager, with a particular proclivity for taking guff from clients. By the end of it I was a chatbot programmer, developer, troubleshooter, optimiser, humaniser, tester and detester in all but name.

Yes, if you’ve ever gone on to a company’s website and tried to complain, only to find yourself confronted by a “hip”, “cool” chatbot who says “Great! I’m happy to hear that” when you tell it that your grandmother has died, then yes, that was me, and I’m truly very sorry for all that.

Now that I’ve left that job, it’s probably safe for me to tell you that chatbots don’t work. You knew that yourself already of course, I imagine you’ve had zero positive interactions with bots. But I can also tell you that, front-end, back-end, ass-end, they don’t function correctly either. I tell you, they are always, always going down and getting stuck altogether. Imagine your human agent, as we have to call them now, just zonking out for an hour? You wouldn’t be too happy if they just elected to have a nice sleep for a couple of hours, would you? And you can try to rouse them all you want and get them going, but they’ll still be a waste of a seat.

Some trendy sales executive may attempt to counter this by pointing out that bots have a much lower labour cost than FTEs, which is your typical flowery, salesy way of saying that your company won’t need to pay minimum wage to a robot. But if you don’t want dumb little PilchardBot representing your brand, then you’ll have to pay lazy money grabbers like me decent whack to set it up and give it a bit of personality, maybe even a cute little avatar (strictly not anime, unless this is for the APAC region in which case the opposite applies).

Give it a few days and I’ll build you a chatbot about as complex as the controls in an elevator; click the menu option and, assuming the bot stays upright, it ought to give you a clearly signposted response. Try and implement a bot that can take free text questions though, and you’ve got to use NLP & NLU, and that’s where things get exceptionally fruity. It might all sound cool, AI and neural networks and machine learning. But in reality, in the back-end you’re just hammering key phrases and keywords into a list in a desperate attempt to have your ignorant bot understand some words in future.

Which is appropriate, because the end user will be doing some hammering too, raining blows down on their keyboards typing out “agent” or “human” in a desperate attempt to gain some human recognition. These business fads always come full circle, don’t they?

Now I even see businesses advertising the fact that their customer service teams are fully human. They might still be Indian, but that’s not the point. Businesses will never get it right, will they? But it’s funny; you think top-notch tech companies always get it right and are the smartest guys around. That is until you submerge yourself in their product, and you realise how flimsy the whole setup is.

Still ,these are the things you must do if you are to be a subject matter expert. And these are the lies you must tell and perpetuate if you are to sell your chatbots. Neither of which were my job of course, strictly speaking, but I had to wear an awful lot of hats during my time as a CSM, which was disappointing as I hate hats. You could put a novelty hat on your old Robotic Operating Buddy if you like, though I’m afraid you may find R.O.B. to be rather unskilled, lacking capacity (sorry, “concurrency” [sorry, “bandwidth”]). He also comes with a hell of a labour cost, or initial outlay or whatever the hell makes them sound good.

I respect the little robot for his role in gaming history but I have to say, what his job description promised and what he actually delivered were about as far apart as a chatbot and a AAA customer experience. R.O.B. bowled a strike through the US gaming market, and promised us a brand new gaming experience, a cool robo-buddy who could play the game with you.

In reality, the little hunk of plastic is smaller, lighter, and more fragile than you think, and he’s not going to be playing NES “classics” like Bad Street Brawler and Zombie Nation alongside you. No, try to plug him into those games and you’ll find him a most untrained bot, and you’re crazy if you think he’s going to start responding – he’ll be as gleefully ignorant as the drossbots I used to throw up onto “the cloud”.

The best R.O.B. will give you is rock-bottom performance in a whopping two NES games: Gyromite and Stack-Up. Gyromite gives you a bit of action where, for the first time in recorded history, a bot opens doors for you and doesn’t hamper your progress. As Burt Reynolds would say, it’s garbage. You’ll pick up Gyromite for half-nothing, and if you’re lucky it might even have Famicom adapter that you can bust out of the casing.

Stack-Up takes a teeny bit more bot development before you can Go Live with it. The game comes in a specially large NES box ,which contains all manner of bulwarks and buttresses to attach onto R.O.B. As you probably know, the more moving parts you add, the greater the chance of something going wildly wrong. Actually that’s a great one to fob the clients off with when shit doesn’t work and they’re demanding to know why, just remind them that there’s loads of moving parts. Eager not to look stupid and untechnical, the client will accept it and you’ll buy yourself a few more days to spend ignoring the issue.

Anyway, back to the Stack, to see how it all stacks up. Included in your €1,000 box is a bunch of coloured “blocks” which you’re invited to place into R.O.B.’s holders. Switch on the Stack-Up game on your NES, try not to roll your eyes at the fact that they never changed the title screen from its Japanese moniker of Robot Block, and go into the main game. Ah, sorry, I say game, but it’s really just a list of chores. The game wants you to select inputs on the screen that’ll make R.O.B. sing and dance a tune. Well, actually, he’ll execute the orders onscreen, and move one stack of blocks from one of his holders to another, and that’s it.

I’m sorry, what?! Has there been some sort of mistake? This is the sort of thing you do in testing, or don’t do in testing in the case of most clients. Did they accidentally ship the training program instead of a fun, playable game? It’s got one hell of an honour system, too – the Gyromite game at least gave R.O.B. a finicky, Doc Brown-style way to access your NES controller, allowing him to press buttons and interact with the game.

In Stack-Up, there is gno ame at all, just a laundry list of processes. And it succinctly brings home everything that’s wrong with bots, this supposed automation revolution.: it’s an overpriced, overwrought, overthought solution that, at worst, still manages to literally fall over, and at best, does almost nothing constructive at all – and takes all day to do it. Take my advice on this one please, and terminate these useless robots with extreme prejudice.

11 January 2022

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