Man-machine and machine-man

Johannes Stiehler
Random Rant
#TextAI
Cover Image for Man-machine and machine-man

Truthfully, I'm just annoyed by all the "Will AI take your job?" clickbait articles. The question is certainly valid, but there is really no basis to answer it meaningfully at the moment.
However, I experienced something on a recent trip to the U.S. that confirmed my own opinion on the subject, so I'm going to go ahead and make a post about it after all:

A few weeks ago, I was trying to get from Jersey City to New York City via public transit. Stupidly, the NJ Transit app is not available for German phones from the app store, so I had to make do with paper tickets. But there was no ticket machine at the bus stop in Jersey City, so - with an unusual amount of planning - I had to buy the ticket in NYC the night before for the bus in Jersey City the next morning.
As a result, I know the NJ Transit ticket counters at the Port Authority Bus Terminal a little better than I would have liked, but otherwise it was not a big problem. I had to go there every evening to go "home" anyway, so I might as well buy the ticket for the next morning from the grim ticket seller.

That worked until the day I tried to get the ticket from Jersey City to Newark at the same place. Yes, that too is a NJ Transit bus and I was at the NJ Transit ticket counter in New York City with a NJ Transit ticket salesman. Yet his response was simply: We don't sell this. I tried to kindly point out to him that it was a simple 1-zone ticket, as I'm sure he sells countless times.
The ticket salesman hacked away at his Windows 95 or 98 or whatever in an unspeakably slow and single-fingered manner and then remained adamant: Neither was he responsible for transit in New York City (which was true) nor for that on the other side of the Hudson (which was not true), but only for that between the two. I was told to please go to the counseling desk across the hall to have this insight reiterated by a more official source.
After some fruitless talking back and forth, which did not convince him - after all, there was a glass panel between us - I followed this "advice".

About a dozen people were waiting in the consulting glass box for similar help. It took me five minutes to understand that they all belonged to the same family and had already been "served" by an "advisor" or whatever you call it.
Accordingly, it was my turn quickly, but after I presented my request, Mr. Advisor typed away just as slowly in the exact same ancient UI as Mr. Ticket Salesman. After minutes of excruciating silence, he concluded, "All you have to do is buy a 1-zone ticket at the NJ Transit counter."

Duh.

The key difference: Mr. Advisor proceeded to print out the results of his research for me. So I was able to carry a copy of it to Mr. Ticket Salesman, who then issued me exactly the ticket I had originally requested (and with which I was able to depart for the airport the next morning). All in all, a process of 45 minutes with a medium to high level of annoyance.

So what does this have to do with AI and jobs? Because the app didn't work, I spent 10 minutes every day buying tickets and always had to pre-plan my trips for the next day. I would have appreciated a vending machine at the bus stop, but there was no real problem.
The experience became harrowing when I had to deal with people who were also just reeling off their algorithms and acting like ill-mannered vending machines. At that moment, I would have much preferred the predictability and reliability of an actual machine. Not to mention my time savings and the cost savings for the already poorly equipped public transportation system.

Here is my personal moral of this and similar stories: I don't know if your job will eventually be destroyed by an AI or robot. But I do know that if you are already acting like a robot right now, the likelihood increases. Whether that is lawyers who always just pull out the same contract template and yet charge in full every time, copywriters who twist target keywords into the same clickbait articles over and over again, or ticket sellers who do their job worse and more rudely than a vending machine. There is a real undercurrent of automation here that will be filled by current and future technologies.

Regardless of the ticket story, I also have a feeling that AI could reverse a trend that was created by the Internet (or what was then called Web 2.0) in the first place: the phenomenon of an incredibly broad visible mediocrity. It took Flickr, 500Px and Instagram to enable millions of mediocre photographers to find an audience. Blogs and publishing platforms like Medium have allowed anyone who can string words together to also bother readers with them. Before, only a few, hopefully excellent photographers, artists, writers could even hope to succeed. It seems a bit as if precisely this broad mediocrity may disappear into oblivion again in the foreseeable future, because the corresponding platforms will be flooded by AI.

In short, robotic work settings and intellectual mediocrity will definitely get under the wheels of the automatons, in my opinion. We should not speculate about anything else just yet.

Johannes Stiehler
CO-Founder NEOMO GmbH
Johannes has spent his entire professional career working on software solutions that process, enrich and surface textual information.

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