When robots would be better: My agonizing call with CenterPoint Energy [updated]

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In a world of accelerating technological and social change, there is great potential for robots and software to take over many of the jobs that humans have been doing. I’m getting the impression that might be a good thing. As much as we complain about AI systems, they really cannot be worse than the 8 minutes and 36 seconds conversation I had with a human from CenterPoint Energy‘s emergency gas leak line yesterday evening. It went something like this, and it was truly painful-yet-hilarious:

Me: I’d like to report what smells like a gas leak in my building.

CenterPoint: What is your name.

Me: John.

CenterPoint: Spell it.

Me: J-o-h-n …

CenterPoint: I’m happy to help you with your emergency today. What is the problem?

Me: There’s a gas leak in my building. I can smell it, and so can other people.

CenterPoint: How do you know there’s a gas leak?

Me: I can smell it.

CenterPoint: I’m happy to help you with your emergency today. Have you checked your stove?

Me: No, it’s not in my unit.

CenterPoint: What are the business hours?

Me: People live here. There are no business hours.

CenterPoint: What are the business hours?

Me: 12 midnight until 12 midnight.

CenterPoint: Do you smell gas?

Me: Yes.

CenterPoint: Have you checked for a gas leak in your home?

Me: I’ve looked, but I already told you that it’s not from my unit.

CenterPoint: Please select one answer from the following: Is this address a residence, a business, a school…

Me: I already told you I live here.

CenterPoint: Thank you. Is this call in regard to your residence, a business, a school…?

Me: My residence.

CenterPoint: Thank you. Do you smell any gas?

Me: Yes, I told you a few times already that the building smells of gas. I can’t pinpoint where it is from.

CenterPoint: Do you hear gas hissing?

Me: No, as I said, it is from elsewhere in the building.

CenterPoint: Thank you. Where in the building is it coming from?

Me: I can’t tell. My olfactory sense has fatigued from prolonged exposure during my efforts to pinpoint the source.

CenterPoint: Thank you. Where in the building is it coming from?

Me: I just told you I don’t know.

CenterPoint: Do you see a broken gas pipe?

Me: No. As I said, I don’t know where it is from.

CenterPoint: Will you be able to let us into the building?

Me: Yes.

CenterPoint: Who can let us into the building?

Me: I can.

CenterPoint: And where will you be?

Me: Waiting for you at the building.

CenterPoint: Thank you for reporting this emergency. Please evacuate the building and make sure not to light any candles.

Me: Okie dokie.

CenterPoint: I have instructed the technician to meet you inside the building.

– Updated November 13, 2014, 11:34am –

CenterPoint responded through Twitter (sent as direct messages and combined here into one paragraph):

Mr. Moravec: Our team reviewed the call and did see room for improvement. The agent is a new employee and needs further coaching. Please note that the address belongs to a condo association, so it is listed as a commercial building in our system. The agent was following the script for commercial buildings. We will review these processes with the agent. Thank you for your feedback.

They seem to miss the point that in a world where software is doing many complex tasks much better than humans, for a company that needs to integrate with humans well, its employees are its competitive advantage. In retrospect, the exchange can seem very funny, but when a particular gas company monopolizes services in a city, it should have its act together. Had the gas leak been a little more severe, people could have died while their employee was busy trying to determine if a condo building is a school or not. If you want me to talk to what is a poorly-designed Web form disguised as a human, maybe it’s time to let software take over this job, too?

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