Wednesday, January 16

The Fake phenomenon

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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.

Legitimacy crisis

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.


About Author

Currently visiting professor, London South Bank University; journalist; occasional broadcaster for Radio 4. St Paul’s School scholar; helped install Britain’s first computer-controlled car park, 1968; graduated in physics. Editor, Design, 1979-82; co-founder, Blueprint magazine. Multi-client study, e-commerce, for the designers Fitch, 1988; proposed Web TV, Henley Centre for Forecasting, 1993. Chief, worldwide market intelligence, Philips Consumer Electronics, the Netherlands, 1995-7. Director, product designers Seymour Powell, 1997-2001. Independent since 2001. James has written for the following: Applied Ergonomics, Computing, Cultural Trends, The Economist, The Institute of Mechanical Engineers Journal, Long Range Planning, New Civil Engineer, The Times, The Independent and The Guardian.

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