The arrival of fake videos and associated phenomena will drive us towards a greater emphasis on human service
“Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
US comedian George Burns
NEARLY A YEAR AGO, researchers at the University of Washington used neural networks to model the shape of Barack Obama’s mouth, and mapped their model on to 14 hours of footage of the then President. They claimed to be put any words on to a synthethised film of Obama.
Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, a co-author of the study, rightly notes that once you know how to do what she’s done, you can reverse-engineer a fake video and discover that its fake. Nevertheless, that has not stopped the Democratic Party’s Senator Mark Warner proclaiming, of ‘deep fake’ videos: ‘The idea that someone could put another person’s face on an individual’s body, that would be like a home run for anyone who wants to interfere in a political process’. Warner, who does not need AI to know what is real and what is fake, now wants IT companies rein in fake video.
He misses the point. As early as 2020, the Web will be alive with fake videos. And that will do two things.
The Fake phenomenon will reinforce the legitimacy crisis that has come to afflict companies and governments in recent years – from Volkswagen to the Home Office:
Organisation Undone by Date
GSK Bribes 2012
NSA Edward Snowden 2013
BHS, VW Philip Green, fake emissions 2015
Big 4 accountants Audit, etc 2013-6
RR, Samsung, BT, Barclays Bribes, sloth, fraud 2017
Boro’ Of Kensington & Chelsea Criminal negligence 2017
Airbus Industrie Corruption 2017
Home Office Windrush mendacity 2018
On top of this, the Fake phenomenon will also means that an unmistakable fraction of consumers, not all of them old, will often want to be served by flesh and blood, not by electrons.
So, in 2030, channels which foreground the human element will still be vital.
Trust is a human question
Yes, employers will use IT to automate some customer service tasks: clever software, for instance will recognise millions by face, and pick up much from their visible emotions. But firstly, this won’t mean the end of personal customer service: in the US, the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that general customer service representatives will see jobs expand by a respectable five per cent, 2020-26, while jobs at contact centers will jump by no less than 36 per cent over the same period.
Secondly, and more importantly, the most ingenious algorithms won’t be able to make aesthetic, personal or ethical judgments on a par with human beings.
For customers, those kinds of judgments – not just judgments based on price – look like becoming more stringent. While today’s youth may be relatively carefree about the uses to which their data is put, purchasing will also remain for them, in 2030, a means of expressing political and group identity. As a result, the young customer of today will likely be strongly judgemental about supplier’s conduct. In that kind of context, trust will be more easily built through interpersonal relations than through online interactions.
Uncritical boosters of IT miss all this. They too easily forget that technology is a human creation. Technologies do not by themselves ‘accelerate exponentially’, and, in different and new ways, human beings will remain important.
Take wearable devices, for instance. While the hype around them has faded, and companies such as Intel have pulled out, there are positive signs around healthcare, even if positive patient outcomes are as yet hard to prove. Does that mean the end of the General Practitioner? Hardly.
Blowing away America’s cobwebs
In every country, the fate of each technology will depend on costs and benefits, regulation, the amount of investment that can be afforded, the social acceptability of the innovation, and the overall morale of society. Because many of these factors are positive in Asia, Asian IT looks like setting a fair bit of the standards customers can expect in 2030. In India, the wearables market is set to grow by 30-40 per cent this year. In Japan, Softbank’s Pepper and Fujitsu’s Unibo robots process facial expressions. As for China, it’s unrivalled in mobile payment systems, mobile travel booking and quantum computing. In online retailing, too, China already boasts tests of small, driverless electric delivery vans equipped with radar and sensors.
Depending on politics and on economics, the New Customer Service already looks pretty different from mainstream practice today. So long as legitimacy crises exist and Asia continues in its dynamism, the context for and therefore the nature of customer service will be very different from that which surrounded it in the past.
It was in the triumphalist afterglow of the end of the Cold War that America’s doctrines about customer service emerged. The concept of customer loyalty dates from 1990; of personalised marketing, from 1993; of customer experience, from 1997. The dotcom boom hadn’t collapsed, 9-11 hadn’t happened, there was no ISIS and no Donald Trump.
It’s time to retire these tired old feelgood dogmas. It’s time to face East, and recognise a harsher, less forgiving world.