Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Robots At The Market

- Want your check-out at Rite-Aid to be more interesting? Leave the machine. Come with me.
- Where?
- To the register. Come on. I'm going to ask a question.
- Please, M'dame, wait behind the white line.
- Don't mind her. She's my audience.
- Rite Aid card?
- First I want you to do something for me: Prove You Are Not A Robot.
- What?
- You know how sometimes when you try to sign into a social media account a box appears ordering you to "prove you are not a robot? Have you ever stopped to think that it is a robot asking you to prove you are not a robot? And do you realize that you prove you are not a robot by acting exactly like a robot, copying a meaningless series of numbers and letters? So I ask you, a mere human being asking a human being, prove you are not a robot, by acting like a human being.  Notice her silence, her confusion.
- How is she supposed to prove she's human?
- Being confused is a good start. You can get back in line now. No. Stick around. I asked this stupid question because I've just come from Trader Joes, across the street. That's the market owned by a German conglomerate that employs Latin Americans to pretend to be South Sea Islanders. I returned a stale loaf of bread I'd just bought, was told by the cashier to see the manager, who gave me a voucher and sent me back to the cashier, who rang a bell calling the manager back to approve the voucher. I asked the cashier if she didn't think this was a little more complicated than necessary, and asked why they stopped allowing cashiers to take returns.
- We never took returns.
- How long have you worked here?
- Three and a half years.
- Well, in that time I've been given refunds many times by cashiers.
- That has never been our policy.
- Are you saying that I've imagined it happening?
- Is there anything else I can do for you?
- We can't both be right. Tell me which of us is right. Do that for me.
- Enjoy the rest of your day.
A while back there was a famous experiment in which a human being asked questions and both a human being and several computers responded. One computer was so good it was chosen as more human than the human. Do you how it was programmed?
- How?
- By having a memory filled with actual human conversations. When in the experiment a human asked a question, the program found that question or similar one in its memory and gave the corresponding recorded human response. Because of stage fright, or the recorded conversations the computer used were exceedingly human, or some other factor, human answerers couldn't come up to the standard of the recorded conversations.
- The girl at Trader Joes was doing what the winning computer did, pulling up response to frequently asked questions?
- Yes. And do you know what is even more interesting?
- What?
- I'm sure she judged her responses more human than mine.