Friday, May 4, 2012

From Machine to Man (or Woman)

Automated Postal Center and new Priority Mail ...
Automated Postal Center and new Priority Mail box display (Photo credit: Aranami)
“It was a pleasure to serve you.”

That’s what the final screen read as I completed mailing a package using the self-serve postal machine at the post office.

Serve me? I didn’t feel like the machine had served me in any way. Sure, the machine used a bit of processing power and ink, but serving? Hardly.

And pleasure? Really? Was the machine actually claiming to feel that emotion?

A more appropriate closing message might have been, “Thank you for your business,” or even, “Have a nice day.”

I’m not opposed to automation. I prefer it. Even if the service window had been open, I would have bee-lined to the self-serve machine. I like technology, and use it. At the grocery store I always choose the scan-it-yourself and self-checkout options. I find it faster and more efficient.

I prefer not to have to politely decline the upgrade to priority mail from parcel post; I’ll just push the buttons. But I do so knowing that I am interacting with a machine, and there is no part of that transaction that feels human to me. I am simply not expecting a machine to be “pleased.”

But then there’s Watson, who wowed us all with his Jeopardy performance last year. We laughed at his colloquialisms and his attempts at sounding as “human” possible. Yet, as I watched, I was acutely aware that Watson was indeed a machine.

What about you? Do you expect feelings from a machine? Do you think we will ever interact emotionally with machines the same way we do with humans?


Liza said...

Well, I sure hope we don't. And I use them too.

Sandra said...

While I don't have the same type of feelings for machines as I do humans, I will confess to feeling emotions about my laptop, my tablet, my smart phone. But I certainly don't ascribe feeling to them!

Maurice Frank said...


As a programmer, I recognize that a person - yes, a real human being, heart beat and all - made the machine say that. Our machines are the creations of people, and they reflect the people who design and implement them. Someone behind that machine is grateful for your business. The machine is just a communication mechanism transmitting a person's message to you.

Thanks for an excellent blog.

Maurice Frank

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I like machines because they don't ask you how you're doing. I'm not a big fan of when cashiers do that. It's not like they care. A friendly 'hi' goes further for me. It's more sincere.

Though I have been tempted a few times (same when telemarketers do that too) to burst into some big sob-worthy story (made up of course) and see the expression on their faces (or the panicked tones in their voices for the telemarketers). Now that sounds like fun. :D

Anon_e_mouse said...

I prefer the human interaction. Sure, I use the self-checkout machines at the grocery store, but I'm comfortable with that technology, having been part of the IBM Store System team in Raleigh for most of my 16 years with the company. But I like the folks behind the counter at my post office. We have a running banter... they try to guess how many gold dollars I'll be giving them that day (I'm a big fan of the dollar coins; the clerks are about evenly divided) and I don't have to ask for stamps rather than meters on the packages I send out.

And while there are some forms of automation that are very nice and convenient (E-ZPass, for example, and ATMs when I've just missed getting to the credit union before they close) I'd much rather talk to a human being. Even when we've both had a rough day, we're usually both smiling by the time the transaction is done. And I can't say that I've ever experienced that from a conversation with a machine.

Colette Martin said...

Maurice, I hear you about the humans behind the machines. And we saw with Watson how far we've come with machines.

Sandra, we know that interacting with technology releases endorphins -- why so many of us "love" our gadgets.

Anon-e-Mouse, yes, there is the convenience aspect, like with the E-ZPass, but I don't think most of us got much out of the human interaction when we handed over a toll (or threw it in a bucket).

We will have to see where technology takes us, won't we...

Liz Fichera said...

Sometimes we hit machines when they don't work. That is mean. ;-)