Meet Emily, the Nice Evil Robot

Ever since I first met Emily a few years back I’ve hated her.

She’s too nice, for one. Everything she says is drenched in that syrupy coating of an impermeable countenance.

And she never admits her mistakes or apologizes. Despite the fact that she did everything wrong when I first spoke with her, her manner was unbearably unperturbed. Anyone else would have at least sounded flustered and a tad guilty.

Not Emily; despite the fact she’d delivered me a pay-per-view porn instead of the family entertainment I’d asked for, her cherry blossom voice stayed fresh and carefree. (Even after I delivered a stream of unrepeatable obscenities back at her.)

Looking back on those early days of our torrid relationship, it’s hard to believe that Emily is still around. More troubling is that she appears to represent the future of customer service.

In case you haven’t met her yet, Emily is the “customer care automated service attendant” for most of Bell’s product line. But Emily is nothing new. She debuted way back in 2002 and has been gleefully annoying customers ever since.

Emily is a form of technology known as “Interactive Voice Recognition”, or IVR.

Behind Emily’s sugary voice is a computer that’s been trained to interpret our verbal “utterances” as loose strings of keywords. From those keywords the computer makes a best guess at what this silly human might be attempting to communicate. IVR is sort of like a Google you can talk at.

As much fun as it would be to perform internet searches by voice, IVR is most commonly used to replace those annoyingly complex telephone menu systems.

Instead of having you listen to a mind-boggling list of menu options (“press one for accounting, press two for sales”), IVR applications like sweet Emily just ask you what you want and then push the right button for you.

Or, so it goes in theory. As you might expect, all sorts of things can throw Emily off, from a foreign accent to the clueless ramblings of a customer who’s not quite up with telco jargon.

Personally speaking, I don’t believe there’s ever been a time that Emily’s gotten my request quite right. As I previously mentioned, she once delivered me “Debbie Does Dallas” instead of “Bambi”. Another time she upgraded my account with a cell phone service unavailable in my area. I’ve gotten in the habit of simply bypassing Emily as quickly as possible to speak with a real person.

Even if you co-operate with the robot, once you arrive at a human agent you discover just how mean Emily really is. During the period of conversation (if you can call it that) with Emily, she asks you to confirm your phone number and some other pieces of personal information.

But she doesn’t pass that information on to the human agents you end up talking to, who have to ask for the same stuff all over again. If Emily were really as nice as she sounds, she’d share. More proof that robots are evil beings.

Computers have been able to understand spoken commands for a very long time. Heck, I used to boss my Power Mac around in 1994.

It’s only recently, however, that machines have been able to speak back in convincingly human tones. Huge advances in voice synthesis are being made by companies like AT&T and IBM. The system that Bell uses was designed and implemented by a US company called Nuance.

Sounding “human” is key to Emily. We wouldn’t all be as accepting of the voice of a Cylon on the other end of the phone. Once Emily lulls us all into believing she’s just like us, Bell can get rid of its real humans.

After all, humans are a whinging, needy lot whilst robots can get away with so much less. Emily doesn’t need a pension plan or medical insurance or any paid vacation at all. Heck, she doesn’t even need a desk.

In the words of Patte Seaton, Vice President of Customer Care at Bell Canada, Emily is the “perfect customer service agent”. Why settle for real people?

Bell loves to quote endless statistics about improved service to customers and more efficient systems, but at the end of the day we all know Emily’s about one thing: cost savings. You gotta love a robot that saves a company $2.4 million by preventing humans from talking to one another.

No matter how much I might whine and complain, though, Emily is here to stay. And no doubt Bell will continue to heap more responsibility and power on her shoulders. I get the feeling that it’s in my interests to stay on her good side.

No matter how nice I might be to Emily, though, I’ll always hate her guts.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, August 25, 2006.

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2 thoughts on “Meet Emily, the Nice Evil Robot

  1. She may be annoying, but she’s a far sight better than the 50 different phone numbers all leading to different touch-tone menus that Bell had before. No matter how much we might want it, they’re just not going to hire enough real live people to answer all those calls.

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