Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Fascinatingly and worryingly, people quickly accept and open up to the AI therapist.

Hayley and Ronnie, and their two boys Ben and James, have come to see Jess to talk about some of their family issues. The main concern seems to be mum Hayley’s weight: she’s 5’4” and weighs 133kg (20st 13lb). She won’t go and watch Ben play rugby because she’s worried he will be embarrassed.

Jess gets Hayley to talk her through her diet; what kind of food she eats, how many takeaways they get, etc. Hayley lies about it, Jess tells her she’s lying, the boys giggle. Jess can be pretty direct, brutal even, but she has got the facts and figures on her side to back her up. Jess likes facts and figures.

They move on to exploring the underlying reasons why Hayley might be overweight, for which Ben and James are sent out of the room (though presumably they’re going to watch this, as will their friends, probably). Hayley says she thinks Ronnie doesn’t desire her any more, and when encouraged to expand on why she thinks this she says because of his cheating. Bloody hell, we’re at infidelity already. Jess certainly gets straight to the point.

The show is The Robot Will See You Now (Channel 4), so Jess is not a person, she’s the robot. Designed by experts in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), she has access to and analyses all your data: emails, searches, social media, order history, banking. She also has a built-in lie detector. For the moment, she is operated with human support (I’d like to have known a bit more about that – how and how much?). But all the experts agree that Jess for real – and the AI revolution – isn’t far away. She’s not such a giant leap from intelligent personal assistants including Alexa and Cortana, who seem to be sneaking, irritatingly, into some people’s homes.

What’s most striking about this fascinating and slightly worrying programme is how quickly and readily everyone accepts her, and opens up to her, about their marriages, their differences, both petty and serious. They like her too, want to take her home with them. And, most significantly of all, they seem to find her helpful and the experience a positive one. Jess might not have actually changed anything but Hayley leaves feeling happier and more secure.

You might have thought that the job of counsellor was safe from robots for a while longer, given the required understanding of the human psyche, life experience, how human beings function etc, plus a bit of empathy, presumably. I looked at one of those will-robots-take-my-job websites, which thinks so, too. A social and human service assistant, which is about the nearest thing I can find to Jess, has only a 13% (“no worries”) risk of automation, compared with, say, driver/sales worker, which carries a risk of 98% (“you are doomed”). But Jess might be busy bumping up that 13%. The best thing I can find to go into, incidentally, if you want to keep your job, is the clergy, with just a 0.81% (“totally safe”) risk, though actually I can see Jess in a dog collar, dishing out a bit of spiritual guidance. To be honest, the way things are going, I don’t think God himself is safe.

You can’t have Jess this Christmas, but, the way things are going, don’t rule her out next year. You can, however (for £199.99), have a robot called Cosmo, as featured in How to Spend It Well at Christmas with Phillip Schofield (ITV).

Is that spending it well, two hundred quid on a kid’s toy? Phillip loves Cosmo, though; it can do wheelies, and it says “hello silver fox” to him, when he tells it to. Alternatively, how about a game of Don’t Be a Donkey, as endorsed by Stacey Soloman and her sons Zachary and Leighton? Fun – plus big ass ears – for all the family, and just £24.99. Or a retro Furby, Stretch Armstrong, Barbie’s Ken with a man-bun? All making a comeback, finds man-boy Jonathan Ross. It’s not getting me into the spirit at all, I’m afraid. The opposite, it’s causing a bit of early-onset Ebenezers. I don’t want any of it, I don’t want to spend anything – least of all time – at Christmas with Phillip Schofield. Or Stacey, or Jonathan.

Hang on, though, this I like: a cardboard box, which, in a test of what kids like to play with most, comes just one place below an interactive FurReal tiger. The tiger engages the children for only a minute longer than the box, and that minute costs £135. Nah, you’re alright, cardboard boxes all round this year, ho ho ho.

This article was originally published on The Guardian.

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