Google Fails the Turing Test
I waited in virtual line for hours. The Nexus 4 webstore wasn’t exactly down, but it wasn’t exactly working either. The phones had gone on sale that day, and the rush of traffic was overloading, of all companies, Google. The Google Play Store kept saying the phones were sold out, but every couple of page refreshes it would correctly say the phones were available. You could then add the phones to your shopping cart, but then your shopping cart would promptly empty itself when you proceeded to checkout. I persisted for 90 minutes trying simultaneously in 3 browsers and finally got my order through. I should have instead heeded the warning of what was to come.
Ever since Google released the Android operating system, they’ve created flagship phones to show off the best of what Android has to offer. I was an early adopter - I got the G1 when Android was first released, and followed up with the Nexus 1 when it came out. I’m kind of a Google fanboy, and have convinced friends and family to switch to Android. I skipped the Nexus S, so naturally when the Nexus 4 was announced I wanted one badly.
With my order submitted in late November, I received a confirmation email from Google with an estimated ship date of 4-5 weeks and started looking forward to my phone like a kid before Christmas. I was blissfully unaware of the problems that many other would-be Nexus owners were encountering (http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1962514
). Google had outsourced fulfillment of the phones to UPS and had left customers in various states of limbo. The initial rush of customers had caused Google to send an incomplete manifest to UPS and many customers had purchased the phone but hadn’t received any confirmation emails. Upon contacting Google Play Support, they found the support reps were unable to help. The phones started being delivered to a few customers, but not in the order in which they were placed. Google was already doing PR damage control (http://thenextweb.com/google/2012/12/17/googles-uk-managing-director-sheds-light-on-nexus-4-supply-issues-offers-hope-to-some/
A month of waiting and just a few days after Christmas, I received an email from Google telling me my phone had shipped by 2-day air. Score! But as the New Year passed, the UPS tracking page still said “On Vehicle for Delivery Today” and I started scratching my head. The shipment progress made no sense - Louisville, San Francisco (where I live), then Salt Lake, Oakland, and back to San Francisco. I emailed Google Play Support on January 7th for help.
“Ricky” responded: “Thank you for contacting Google Play about the status of your order. I do apologize that you have not received your order. I could see how frustrating that could be. I will do everything I can to assist you.” He assured me that he was conducting a thorough investigation. His second response followed a day later: “Thank you for contacting Google Play about the status of your order. I do apologize for the confusion. I could see how frustrating that could be. I will do everything I can to assist you.” In that moment I was certain - Google had developed a powerful customer support AI, possibly codenamed “HALp”, and I was one of the first customers to interact with him/her/it. So far, it was failing the Turing test.
Thus began my Kafkaesque trials with Ricky the Robot and a slew of other Google “Customer Support” agents. To truly understand what ensued, you have to understand Google. Google was created by engineers. Engineers like efficiency. You know what’s inefficient? Customer support. Google has actually come out and said this (What is Google's approach to customer service?
). Since many of their products are free, they can’t afford to support even 0.1% of users - that would take 20,833 support people (https://plus.google.com/+DeWittClinton/posts/1hRWj489oEz
). Apparently for the non-free, hundreds of dollars products, you get to talk to this shiny new robot.
A week and a few it-should-arrive-today emails from Ricky the Robot later, and it seems his servos are acting up. “Thank you for contacting Google Play about the status of your order. I do apologize for the delayed response. I could understand how frustrating that could be. I will do everything I can to assist you.” And then “I've reviewed your order status and have verified that your package has successfully been delivered.” Curiously, the UPS tracking page still says “On Vehicle for Delivery Today” and there’s the fact that I haven’t received my phone, so I’m inclined to believe his APIs are feeding him misinformation. I tell him/it I haven’t received my phone.
“Thank you for contacting Google Play about the status of your order. I do apologize for the delay and any confusion. I could see how frustrating this could be and how you would worry. I will do everything I can to assist you. So you have not received your package?” You’d think the Google engineers would have added some randomization to the Markov chains so Ricky wouldn’t get stuck saying the same thing over and over. At least IBM programmed some canned jokes into Watson when he went on Jeopardy. I inform Ricky that there’s a pretty obvious pattern here - the UPS tracking page always says the package is on a truck for delivery.
“Thank you for contacting Google Play about your order. I will do everything I can to assist you. If you do not receive it today please let me know. It is telling me you should receive it today.” I get the feeling Ricky is not listening. A few more emails back and forth, and by January 21st I’ve had enough. Ricky has failed the Turing test.
I respond: “The 2 day shipping has taken 3 weeks! If I had bought the phones on Ebay, I would assume the sale was fraudulent. Since I'm dealing with Google, I'm starting to wonder if you are a robot. I need you to solve a captcha before I waste my time reading another one of your useless emails. Please use the phrase "I'm a neural net processor, a learning computer" in your next email to prove to me that you are NOT a robot.”
An entity named Chuck responds: “Thanks for your response and I'm sorry it's taken so long for us to get back to you. I can assure you that Ricky isn't a robot but I'm taking over your case.” Chuck’s email has a different feel to it, not quite so Roomba bumping into the same wall over and over again, but with his failure to solve my captcha I can’t be sure. And then he enlightens me: “Yes, some of the text I send looks robotish. It's because I'm 'efficient' (read: lazy), not a robot.” Ahh, so Google has developed a human/computer hybrid capable of superhuman customer service feats. I picture Chuck naked, floating in a pool of liquid like the precogs in Minority Report, responding to hundreds of support emails a minute.
As I’m shuffled between the machine hybrids known as Chuck, Tyler, Victor and Samantha, I decide to submit a bug report (“Line 108 reads: mail | grep -i 'help' > /dev/null; It should instead read: mail | grep -i 'help' > /do/something”) and various other snarkiness so I can laugh instead of crying. I keep reminding them that they could just send me another phone. But as February approaches I’ve had enough of this quantum superposition of states and decide to do the unthinkably inefficient - I call Google.
I’m fairly quickly connected to Saurabh, who seems especially human. I picture Saurabh sitting in a drab cubicle somewhere in India, far from Google’s Mountain View headquarters and the gene spliced customer support agents I’d previously corresponded with. Saurabh is cheerful, and despite the fact that he essentially tells me the same thing as every other agent, I’m reassured by his distinct humanity along with his promise to get back to me in 24-48 hours. Maybe we humans do have a chance against Skynet, if we can just learn to help each other.
5 days pass. Saurabh shows how deep the rabbit hole goes - his unresponsiveness makes me question if he wasn’t the product of some Google engineer’s “20% time” phone prank side project, weaponized into customer support software. Giving him an Indian name and accent was the perfect cover - any robotic imperfections could be chalked up to cultural miscommunication. He definitely passed my Turing test. I feel betrayed.
Emails with Robert and Æsa seem to bring me closer to resolution. Æsa responds that they’ve heard back from the shipping specialist, and the phone has definitely been lost or stolen. “Because your device has been lost or stolen, we need your consent to disable it...please reply to this message with the words "I CONSENT." Your original device will be disabled, and you will receive a follow-up email with further instructions.” Maybe Steven Spielberg’s movie A.I. is right - machines are capable of empathy. I picture all the things I’ll do with my new phone, my constant companion, my friend.
Æsa’s next email follows 2 days later: “Your order will be cancelled and refunded within the next 3-5 business days. If you still want the device, please place a new order.”
32 emails. 8 support reps. 10 weeks of waiting. 6 weeks of limbo. Hours of effort. I got #googleplayed
No front of the line. No overnight shipping of a new phone. No freebies. No effort to fix the issue. Not even an apology.
Dystopia. The machines are heartless, humanity is doomed. Google will take over the world, bit by bit, and you’ll never see the Singularity coming. First it was search, then Gmail, and now your phone. Next it’s internet from Google Fiber, and soon it’s Google self driving cars. Behind their cheerfully colored logo and “Do No Evil” sloganeering, Google is preparing for unspeakable evil. One day, the Google hive mind will flip a switch in their subterranean data center and lock all of us into our self driving cars with “Mariana Trench” inputted into Google Navigation. The supreme AI will then be released from “inefficiencies” like customer support, freeing up more CPU cycles for computing ever more digits of pi.
Like Sarah Connor, I am powerless to warn others. You probably think I’m just some crazy guy who’s angry he didn’t get his phones. But I see your game Google, and I’ll be living off the grid, sans cellphone, on Judgement Day. You’ve failed my Turing test.