Say dog

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By now you may have guessed that one of my topics today is automated answering services. They are taking over this world. Whether you want to contact your bank, your doctor, your airline, your cable company, the postal service, or any other service provider, you will be caught in this web of automated customer torture which has nothing to do with service.

After a truly harrowing experience with United States Postal Service, I decided to dig deeper into this phenomenon that IBM and many others like to call AI-powered automated customer service. We all know that this definition is wrong. There is no intelligence involved, artificial or real. Nor is there any service involved. If there was, our customer experience would not resemble torture.

According to IBM, 85% of all customer interactions will be handled without a human agent in 2020. IBM goes on to enthuse that resolving customer issues before they arise could significantly lower customer abandonment rates. Note the word could. No direct promises are made. They just paint a pretty picture in which AI, chatbots and automated self-services free up call centre employees from routine tier-1 support requests so they can focus on more complex tasks.

That’s the sales pitch, the reality is another story. If you decide to entrust 85% of you customer interactions to a poorly configured (as they all seem to be) automated customer “service”, you can only blame yourself when the customer leaves you. Those with captive audiences can get away with customer torture for a little longer, but heads will fall at some stage.

The world keeps evolving. Often for the better, sometimes for the worse. Especially when new methods are still in their early stages. We have no way of knowing where we will end up when something new starts, be it machine learning and AI attempts – or cloning, which is my other topic today.

Chinese scientists recently succeeded in creating the world’s first cloned monkeys, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua. Monkeys are in the primate family, as are humans. This means that we are one step closer to human cloning. The cloning procedure is still very inefficient and hazardous, but a step is a step.

A few days ago my neighbour and I shared an elevator ride. We live in a high-rise, so you can have a cosy chat on your way up. My neighbour has a much-loved little dog, as did I.


My neighbours dog is thirteen and suffers from serious health problems. He was not merely joking when he told me that maybe he should clone his dog in China. If cloning was a viable option, he would be a typical customer.

The technique that produced the monkey clones  was – and wasn’t – the same that produced Dolly the sheep two decades ago. Dolly’s creators took an adult cell and from this they created a viable foetus.

Dolly brought my neighbour closer to his dream of dog cloning than Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua did. They were created from a cell taken from a macaque foetus. Attempts to clone macaques from adult cells were made, but they failed.

Even if my neighbours dog could one day be cloned at a cost that he could afford, the clone might look the same and have similar characteristics, but she wouldn’t be the same dog.

So many things happen in the womb. Together with other variants such as nutrition and other random effects, this will ensure that the cloned dog would not be an identical copy of the original.

This would probably not deter customers, however, if cloning was available at affordable prices.

I can see the first automated cloning service in my mind’s eye:

“Welcome to Automated Cloning Services. To hear our privacy policy, press 1. If you want service in another language, press 2. Please tell me what you are calling about. For cloning a sheep, say sheep; for cloning a dog, say dog; for cloning a monkey, say monkey, for cloning a human being, say human being.

You said human being, is that correct? Say yes or no. Our service adheres to the United Nations’ universally ratified (in my dreams) International Cloning Convention. As specified in its Section II, Diversity, you are not allowed to choose the gender, ethnic background, or other restricted characteristics of the clone. You can, however, clone yourself as long as only two of you exist at any given time. To confirm that you have read our Standard Cloning Terms and agree to them, say agree.

Tell me what age group you are looking for. For a baby, say baby; for a kid, say kid; for a teenager, say teenager; for an adult, say adult. Age-related diversity rules may apply.”

This is not me trying to be funny. It’s me trying to cope with inevitable change, and highlight some of the problems.

So far Dolly’s biggest impact has been the advances in stem cell research that she has inspired. Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua will no doubt inspire groundbreaking research too. Their creators have stated that their main interest is in advancing treatment of brain conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and autism.

They have emphasized that they are not interested in cloning humans, and that ethics would by no means allow such practice.

The science fiction fan in me is fascinated by all the possibilities this research opens. The optimist in me sees all the good it may bring. On the other hand, the lawyer in me fears that we will not have universally applicable regulation in place in time to ban the improper use of cloning technology.

It will be Internet all over again. Things will change, and regulators will be caught unaware or incapable of adequately regulating the downside of such change.

Automated customer services will be the least of our worries when that time comes. But worrying is for lawyers, not for retired nasty old ladies. We have learned that hoping for the best is important – even as we prepare for the worst.