In a Self-Serve World, Start-Ups Find Value in Human Helpers (Farhad Manjoo)

Farhad Manjoo  writes for the New   York Times. This appeared on December 16, 2015

I have a question for viewers to consider and, if moved to do so, answer. How much, if anything, of this trend that Manjoo identifies applies to the increased access and use of technology in public schools?

It’s unfashionable to admit this in the age of Expedia, Priceline and other do-it-yourself online tools, but here it is: I miss travel agents.

The Internet took off as a way to book travel because the human intermediaries were always a bit suspect — their expertise questionable, their methods opaque and their allegiances unclear. And at first, the machines seemed to improve everything. For uncomplicated trips, booking online is now much easier than in the past. Because we’ve replaced agents with computers whose sole purpose is to ferret out the best deal, and for lots of other reasons, airfares have plummeted over the last three decades.

Yet as you suffer through another holiday travel season, you might pause to consider how much we’ve really gained — and lost — in ditching human agents for machines. And you might welcome an emerging trend on the Internet: start-ups that are trying to put human agents, whether in travel, home services or shopping, back at the center of how we make decisions.

“A lot of companies pushed hard on the idea that technology will solve every problem, and that we shouldn’t use humans,” said Paul English, the co-founder of a new online company called Lola Travel. “We think humans add value, so we’re trying to design technology to facilitate the human-to-human connection….”

Mr. English isn’t allergic to tech. He co-founded and served as the chief technology officer of Kayak, the booking site acquired by Priceline in 2012 for nearly $2 billion. But Mr. English often manned the customer service phone line at Kayak, and would get calls from people who had grown frustrated with online booking.

“I tried to create the best travel website on the market,” he said. “But as good as we thought our tech was, there were many times where I thought I did a better job for people on the phone than our site could do.”

You’ve most likely experienced the headaches Mr. English is talking about. Think back to the last time you booked anything beyond a routine trip online. There’s a good chance you spent a lot more time and energy than you would have with a human. Sure, the Internet has obligingly stepped in to help; there are review sites, travel blogs, discussion forums and the hordes on social media to answer every possible travel question. But these resources only exacerbate the problem. They often turn what should be a fun activity into an hours long research project….

It’s not just in travel that we’re all being asked to shoulder more work. The Internet’s great magic is what a business school professor would call “disintermediation.” By surfacing all of the world’s information and letting each of us act on it, computers help us bypass the expensive human brokers and service people who once sat in between consumers and suppliers.

Now, rather than consult an insurance agent, you simply search online. You never go into a bank —you just use the tireless A.T.M. — and at the supermarket, there are those self-checkout machines. You can buy stocks without a broker, you can publish a book without a publisher, you can sell a house without an agent and you can buy a car without a dealer. Slowly but surely, the robots seem to be replacing all the middlemen and turning the world into a self-serve society.

An economist would praise the great disintermediation for its efficiency. As a customer, you may have a different reaction: Look at all the work you’re now being asked to do. Was it really wise to get rid of all those human helpers?

In many cases, yes, but there remain vast realms of commerce in which guidance from a human expert works much better than a machine. Other than travel, consider the process of finding a handyman or plumber. The Internet has given us a wealth of data about these services. You could spend all day on Craigslist, Yelp or Angie’s List finding the best person for your job, which is precisely the problem.

“It’s going to be a long time until a computer can replace the estimating power of an experienced handyman,” said Doug Ludlow, the founder of the Happy Home Company, a one-year-old start-up that uses human experts to find the right person for your job. The company, which operates in the San Francisco Bay Area but plans to expand nationally, has contracts with a network of trusted service professionals in your area. To get some work done, you simply text your Happy Home manager with a description of the problem and maybe a few pictures.

“A quick glance from our handyman gives us an idea of who to send to your job, and what it will cost,” Mr. Ludlow said. The company handles payment processing, scheduling and any complaints if something goes wrong….

It isn’t feasible to get humans involved in all of our purchases. Humans are costly and they’re limited in capacity. The great advantage of computers is that they “scale” — software can serve evermore customers for ever-lower prices.

But one of the ironies of the digital revolution is that it has also helped human expertise scale. Thanks to texting, human customer service agents can now serve multiple customers at a time. They can also access reams of data about your preferences, allowing them to quickly find answers for your questions.

As a result, for certain purchases, the cost of adding human expertise can be a trivial part of the overall transaction. Happy Home takes a cut of each service it sets up, but because it can squeeze out certain efficiencies from operating a network of service professionals, its prices match what you’d find looking for a handyman on your own. That’s true of human travel agencies, too — the commissions on travel are so good that Lola can afford to throw in human expertise almost as a kind of bonus.

The rise of computers is often portrayed as a great threat to all of our jobs. But these services sketch out a more optimistic scenario: That humans and machines will work together, and we, as customers, will be allowed, once more, to lazily beg for help.

 

9 Comments

Filed under technology use

9 responses to “In a Self-Serve World, Start-Ups Find Value in Human Helpers (Farhad Manjoo)

  1. Larry Winkler

    In the ’30s from the likes of Godel, Church, Turing, Kleene we learned what computers could do and that was called Computable. If a problem was computable an algorithm could be built and when run would automatically pop out the answer. Being not computable a human skill, a human intelligence like intuition, imagination, empathy, insight, wisdom was needed.

    Might this tell us something? The job or a substantial part of the job being replaced merely requires an algorithm. The job being replaced is or could be dumbed down so even a computer could do it. The job being replaced could use the human intuition of the customer rather than the employee to add intelligence to the algorithm. In each of these cases, of course, those making the decisions
    to replace humans with algorithms can be wrong and for various reasons.

  2. Alice in PA

    My husband and I just spent over an hour together on our 2 computers booking a hotel in London. We wished we had a human who knew us and could help us narrow down the choices to a good fit for us. The filters on hotels.com are at a large grain size. Even with finer controls, they cannot be as efficient as talking with a human.
    Same for education. I know my students and I have worked to get a handle on their prior knowledge. I react to their words and behavior in class. Even though conversation is messy, it is efficient for ironing out details. As I have said before, all choices on a computer are pre-programmed. If you do not fit one of those, then you are losing something. You cannot ask questions of a computer or have a back and forth conversation ironing out the specifics of an idea.

  3. From a systems engineering perspective, a well-designed “automated” system complements the “human in the loop” facilitating more effective operational outcomes. The automation and the cognition must work seamlessly together to accommodate an array of use cases. Very, very few such systems exist, as they are immensely expensive to design, test, field and support, especially if there is a need to handle ad hoc scenarios.

    The rapid advance of technology, especially in the form of online apps, creates the illusion that either this interplay has been addressed successfully, or worse, that technology obviates the need for a “human in the loop” vis a vis disintermediation.

    As any teacher who has used any computing device (desktop, notebook, tablet, Chromebook, etc.) with any software application with their students will tell you, high tech will never replace high touch, much less the immediacy of a nearby teacher. I will go so far as to state that in primary and secondary education, the need for compassionate, knowledgeable, and pedagogically-skilled humans (aka teachers) will never subside in spite of the continuing advance of technology, albeit technology offers great hope for new and exciting learning opportunities in a teacher’s repertoire.

    I say this as the teacher’s ability to guide students through difficulties not only with the technology itself, but with their understanding of the concept, idea, topic, procedure, etc. towards the intended learning objective will never be replaced effectively. It is simply too complex a system to implement except in the minds of educational reformers enamored with the allure of technological innovation.

  4. JMK

    I think education stands as an example of a sector that technology has resolutely attacked but failed to touch. Why? Because in all the examples he gives, there’s an underlying transaction to be automated. In teaching, there is no underlying transaction. There’s the messiness of learning.

    Those pushing technology believe that the “transaction” is lesson delivery, or curriculum automation. They’ve all learned, to their dismay, that it’s much more than that.

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