The Internet and Us - Part 3: A Joke OnlineTue, 18th Dec '18, 12:30 am::
It started off as an elaborate April Fools' joke in March of 2019. I wanted to prank my friend so I wrote a simple script that used Google's new Duplex AI digital agent to call him at odd hours. The AI voice was "human" enough to fool almost anyone, interjecting pauses with "umm" and "aha", repeating the same thing using different words. Gone were the days of Prof. Hawking's monotone voice. My friend was now being nagged by a believable set of voices who were trying to book a scuba lesson in his non-existent swimming pool, buy his not-for-sale hair, and apply to his world-famous clown college! My script emailed me every hilarious interaction he had to put up with but by the sixth one, he started asking the bots if I was paying them to call him. On April 1st, I called him up and asked him to review some code I was having trouble with and waited until it dawned on him. I heard a series of loud cuss words followed by uproarious laughter.
"You know I totally believed it was real people," he said. "I mean the accents could use some improvement but I honestly believed someone was posting my number on Craigslist or something. I had no idea these were computer voices!"
Over the next few months, I got busy with life and forgot about the script until one evening I had to call my cable company. They had unexpectedly raised my monthly rate without increasing the Internet speed and I figured it was time they heard my true feelings. But I was on hold for so long, I realized that it wasn't worth my time or sanity. "Only a robot could hold patiently for 30 minutes and not get enraged at the poor customer service rep for an unexpected charge," I thought. Maybe it was frustration, maybe it was the prospect of another funny story, but I spent the night rewriting my April Fools' script to bargain with the cable company. The logs showed that it took about 3 tries before an agent at my cable company said "I totally understand you frustration. How about I revert back to your old price but you keep the new speed?" My pre-programmed script sighed "Ok, that will work I guess." I didn't want it to sound too happy lest they might think I was trying to pull a fast one over them.
I shared the story of lowering my cable bill with friends and family and they all wanted to try it out. I just needed them to send me their cable company name and account number. I already knew most of their home addresses. It took a few days but eventually I had a very detailed, realistic script written that could handle most of the top 10 cable companies and it could even change the tone when talking to supervisor. I analyzed the logs and the script worked right off the bat in 60% of the cases and took at most 3 attempts to get 95% success. I eventually created a simple online form for friends of friends to enter their cable company name and account number so I didn't have to manually type things out.
I woke up next morning with a $540 PayPal balance. Positive balance! Someone popular had mentioned my site on their podcast. By evening, it was $1400 and PayPal shut down my account thinking it was scam. Took all next day to get it unlocked. After a few days, I started getting calls from people saying Company X had started training their employees to ignore my script. So I spent a few hours increasing its vocabulary and fed it a few books on negotiation and customer service. That worked. First month sales were $24,000 and expenses were barely $500!
The next few months leading into January 2020 are a haze. I was receiving feedback and requests from people around the world at an overwhelming rate. I expanded the basic cable-company caller system to handle health insurance claims, Craigslist inquiries, and even added a business-ready module that could reschedule Outlook and Gmail appointments. But the one that went viral was the car purchase negotiator. You simply enter the car make/model and your zip code and my AI bots would look online and call up every dealership in a 100-mile radius. Then it would negotiate the best price, essentially making each dealer bid against the others in near real-time. Once the script reached optimal pricing, you would get an email summary and then could call the dealership to finalize the purchase. Only cost you $25 or if you joined the monthly Gold plan or higher, it was free.
Growth was good and rapid. Soon I had a team of talented coders, a horde of eager investors, and a following of lazy slackers who never wanted to make a phone call again. But replacing phone calls wasn't the end-of-line for us. We had stopped using Google's Duplex once Mozilla released their open-source AI agent framework Firefish, which could do a lot more than talk. It could intelligently fill out forms. So we added a premium "No Snails" service. All of your boring postal mail comes to us and we handle it. Late fees on car rental? We negotiate it down to near $0. Bill for a "free" service that keeps auto-charging you? We cancel it for you! $49/mo is not a lot to live a hassle-free life. The only mail in your mailbox is birthday cards and wedding invites. No more scary IRS bills. Our Platinum plan members got their tax issues resolved automatically.
Maybe it was the public's lack of technical understanding or their faith in our brand, but people stopped thinking of us as an algorithm company. As far as they were concerned we had a call-center full of 100,000 people fighting on their behalf. It was barely 10,000 cloud servers! By the time we needed a million servers, we had acquired ten million paying customers. We were still private, IPOs having lost their charm by the market failures in late 2020s. We wanted to do something special for our ten millionth customer and the folks in travel department came up with an ingenious solution - World Citizen plan.
We already had Full-Life management plans where we took care of almost every issue you could have from picking health insurance to finding the right job. But no matter what we did, everything was location dependent. Even if our system could help a Canadian citizen find a job in US and automatically handle the filling, mailing, and replying to all of the paperwork needed to get passport and work-visa, the person still had to go for an in-person interview for security reasons. What if we could negotiate some sort of deal between both US and Canada where citizens of either countries could bypass the interview as long as they met certain criteria? Well, since most of the politicians in both countries were already Full-Life management customers, it didn't take long for us to convince them to support our World Citizen plan. After all, we already knew our customers in more depth than any interview or background check could reveal.
As far as I was concerned, I had no interest in selling anyone's data or getting hacked. Sure we experienced the odd instance of run-of-the-mill corporate espionage but securing our systems remained our top internal goal. This helped sell the World Citizen plan to more than the North American politicians. Soon Europe, Africa, and India joined in. Beauty of the World Citizen plan was that since we managed the application and approval process on both side of member countries, our customer's didn't even have to proactively apply for a visa. Instead our travel department would suggest places for them to visit as soon as they became eligible for a visa.
It took a few years but we finally worked out the kinks in the visa-free travel process. Terrorism had always been the primary threat to visa-free travel and we found a unique solution, that our customers surprisingly didn't hate - bank with us. Once a customer moves 100% of their banking, investment, and credit accounts to our system, we could easily detect and prevent illicit activities. We weren't as interested in preventing crime as in having non-criminal customers. Shady financial stuff got you banned from our service permanently. And if you wanted to appeal, you would have to fill out the forms manually and make the calls personally. There was little incentive for criminals to join our service.
For the next decade or so, we continued to acquire more customers and around the time the ten billionth baby was born, we added our third billionth customer. Of these three billion paying customers, 400 million were on the World Citizens plan. We were essentially the fifth largest nation in the world albeit without sovereign borders, currency, or elected officials. We did have a flag though and although it wasn't planted on any planet or moon, it was quite popular among new customers.
Things seemed to be going well for us and our customers well into the mid-2040s but then things took a turn for the worse quite quickly. Our non-customers revolted globally and continued to do so with an unyielding frenzy. We all understood why but we didn't know what we could do that didn't further spread violence. They either made too little to afford our service or had history (criminal or objectionable as per our internal standards) that prevented them from signing up for even the Bronze plans. These folks rarely got approved for visas now that most of the UN countries had signed up to the World Citizens registry. They had a hard time beating our AI at finding decent jobs, dates, or even restaurant reservations. Our AI lawyers beat their AI-aided human lawyers in 90% of the cases and our banking system was better insured than most countries' reserve banks. In nutshell, if you were our customer, you did not have to worry about bureaucracy. Sure it cost you a bit more to get your kid enrolled in a prestigious school but you can be sure that once you set a $3500/mo budget, our system found the most optimal school that fit your budget, education goals, and even your morning commute. The school didn't have to update their enrollment process or website. Our system did everything like you as a human would have via phone, snail mail, and web, just at a thousandth of the cost and with nary a care.
As proud as we were of everything we did for our 3/10th of the human population, it wasn't great to be part of the other 7/10th. So after a few tumultuous years, on Jan 1st 2050, we made the entry-level plan free for everyone without a bad history. Bam! Five billion new users in a day! The rest were mostly kids under 13 or ineligible to sign up.
Looking back at my life, I am proud to say that I helped improve the world in my own unique way. No, I didn't cure cancer and didn't eradicate world hunger. I barely donated to charity beyond what my Full-Life Tax AI suggested. But I'd like to think that I made the world a better place because I got rid of stress and misery on a global scale. We are all but human. I never expected us flawed humans to always do the right thing and I could never convince politicians to fix the laws or update their convoluted processes. All I could do was write a few automated scripts to make living less bothersome. Who knew it could end up touching so many lives! And to think it all started as a joke online.