Why I gave up being a NIMBL

Apr 16 | 2018

What do Artificial Intelligence, chatbots and automated self-service technologies have to do with the moving business? ... and what the heck is a chatbot, anyway? IAM's Ray daSilva gives his views on the march of new technology.

All this technology stuff was not supposed to happen until sometime in the future, like 2020 or so. But wait … 2020 is only two years from now. Perhaps you have been one of  the Not In My Blxxxx Lifetime (NIMBL) kind of people and think you don’t have to worry about it. Well, sorry … it looks like some of it has already happened! 

So, what is a chatbot and what does it do? Here’s a clue from a Wikipedia listing: “A chatbot is a computer program which conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods. Such programs are often designed to convincingly simulate how a human would behave as a conversational partner, thereby passing the Turing test.” 

Now, I remember seeing this silly pop-up on a moving company website.  As I started scrolling on the page, this message said “Hi, my name is Ethan.  Can I help you?”  I imagined my chat buddy was in Bangalore or Manila and asked whether local moving rates were regulated in Arlington.  The answer “Yes, we would be happy to quote on your local move.  Can I make a note of your name and e-mail, please?” 

The technology may not be quite there yet, but before you dismiss it, think about this.  The pace of change and advances in technology are not linear: they are exponential.  If you think chatbots are hopeless and will never in your lifetime replace humans in customer service, particularly in the moving business, then consider facial recognition technology. 

In the August 2007 issue of Discover Magazine, Jaren Lanier wrote, “In at least one way, the smartest machines can't match a baby.”  Jaren was writing about facial recognition technology.  Flash forward 11 years and I just paid for my groceries this morning by double-clicking my smartphone, staring into the screen and then waving my phone at the card reader.  Not only can the phone in my pocket recognise my face; I am willing to trust this technology with credit card payments.   

What is as remarkable as the technology is the pace of change and acceptance.  I now think nothing of this remarkable technology.  It has become ubiquitous and commonplace overnight.  I can’t impress anyone with my fancy phone.   

That chatbot may seem pretty hopeless right now but it is a machine running algorithms.  It can be taught or programmed and unlike people, once you teach it – it will retain that information in an exact and complete manner.  Oh, and then there’s machine learning.  

Here’s Wiki again: “Machine learning is a field of computer science that gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.” 

Yes, they will teach themselves.  And no, they do not stop to eat or sleep.   

Back to the moving business  

That chatbot is hopeless right now but the idea of putting an excellent chatbot into your customer service department is a possibility soon.  I can hear you now.  NIMBL! 

A nicely programmed chatbot will ask one or two questions and based on that understanding will offer up resources that may address your need.  I’ve had the opportunity to use some and they hit the mark about 50% of the time.  If 50% of your customer enquiries could be addressed by efficiently routing the person to the right online resource, is that a bad thing?    

Automated Teller Machines 

The first ATMs appeared in 1969.  By the 1980s, they seemed to be everywhere.  Most of us have accepted the efficiency of slipping in a card and getting our cash to go.  ATMs and online banking services have replaced many of the functions performed by human bank tellers in the past.   

Unemployment did not skyrocket.  We did not get de-humanised because we couldn’t gossip with our bank teller.  ATMs are not immune to fraud and theft, but neither are bank tellers.   

Soon ATMs will join fax machines and 8-track tapes as extinct technologies.  I can now authenticate myself to my bank through facial recognition and use Zelle to send money almost instantly on my mobile phone.  Why do I need cash in my pocket?  

Meanwhile, at the grocery store  

If you think this technology stuff is not going to catch up to the moving industry, take a look at what’s happened to grocery shopping.  I can cruise the aisles and pick out my items.  I then proceed to the self-checkout aisle where I scan my own items.  It’s a little clunky but it works pretty well most of the time.   

Just like the ATMs, the checkout system is getting better very quickly and, just like the ATM, before we get a chance to get used to it, this technology will be made redundant.  Amazon just bought Whole Foods, a US grocery store chain, and they are now offering an online service with two-hour delivery in some markets.   

And speaking of Amazon, I have been a loyal Prime member since 1997.  You want to study customer service?  These guys are rewriting the book on it.  You remember books, right? Those paper bound thingies we used to read before we got all our information from our mobile phones. 

I won’t go on about Amazon other than to say that in today’s news (which I read on my phone …) reports are out that Amazon is now ready to compete with UPS and FedEx on shipping services.  Well, at least Amazon won’t be looking at moving services, right?  NIMBL?  Do a search for “Moving Services” on Amazon.  

Where is all this heading? 

In December 2017, Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, updated his prediction that the first fully autonomous driverless vehicles would be available by 2019.  He predicts that by 2020, these cars will drive better than humans.  On February 6, a company called Embark completed a US coast-to-coast run in a modified Peterbilt tractor trailer equipped with safety sensors and self-driving software.  How’s that NIMBL working you, now? 

There are estimated to be four million truck drivers in the US. Throw in a few taxi and Uber drivers, maybe some bus drivers, too.  In a study issued by Goldman Sachs, there is a prediction that 300,000 truck drivers may lose their jobs per year starting in 2025.   

Those aren’t the only jobs that are under threat from Artificial Intelligence.  Think about your last doctor’s visit for your annual checkup.  How much time did your doctor spend with you?  After 15 minutes, he sent you off for a battery of blood and other tests. 

People are currently wearing bands around their wrist that are measuring their vital signs 24 hours a day.  Remember that urine test from the annual checkup?  Your smart toilet connected to the Internet of things will soon be monitoring those vital signs on a daily basis.  That information and much more will be streamed by your mobile phone to a computer wired to the World Wide Web which will measure slight variations in your vital signs and compare them against all the past diagnoses in its database, as well as current reports streaming in from the world.  You won’t be visiting the doctor when your feel bad anymore. Dr Siri will tell you that you will be feeling bad in approximately 27 hours unless you take the following steps.  

What will all the unemployed people do? 

An author named Yuval Harari has written two books which talk about the history of homosapiens to understand the possible future of humans.  He writes about the possibility of a class of ‘Useless Humans’ who may literally have no useful work abilities. Others, and I’m in this group, are more positive.   

With every major evolutionary step for humankind as we went from hunter-gatherers to the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution and the scientific revolution; some have predicted massive human displacement and dehumanisation.  However, at each step, mankind has been able to reinvent itself and move forward.   

What you make of technology, just as what you choose to make of a longer life span, is up to each of us.  For some, both represent negative possibilities.  Others will see opportunity.   

So, what does all this have to do with the moving business?  Our industry is subject to the same pace of change, disruption and perhaps opportunities as the rest of the world.  Those that would ignore this do it at their peril.  Some will embrace change and even attempt to be at the leading edge of it.  Others will choose a steadier approach.  I believe there is ample room for both approaches.   

There are many customers who still appreciate and want a hand-crafted personal service approach with the human touch.  Others will appreciate a more flexible, self-serve approach. The market can still accommodate both.  For those that are still feeling a bit NIMBL, I hope this article shows that change is inevitable, constant and here now; what we choose to make of it, is up to us.  

Photo; Top right: Ray daSilva.

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