Phone Drones: Virtual Agents Answer Customer Service Call of Duty

That a large portion of one?s customer service call are outsourced to India or other exotic locales is old news. We?ve all been patched through to a phone bank half a planet away to speak with someone trained to suppress their native accent and make references to your local weather and high school sports rivalries. Some fast food chains even outsource your drive-up burger order to countries like India where eating cow is verboten to a substantial portion of population.

Lately, tax breaks and a surfeit of college-educated English speakers have attracted blue chip companies like IBM, Shell and Hershey to the Philippines, creating a customer service economy that, due to the 9-hour time difference from its American customers, operates predominately at night.

Companies like MyCyberTwin, however, are anticipating yet another shift in customer service outsourcing ??one that won?t require a legion of nighthawks in Manila, nor pretending to be American ??just human. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, avatars (or, ?virtual agents,? to use industry parlance) can answer complex questions and use rational and logical thinking. Think ?Spock in a Box.?

?By combining sophisticated ?brain? technology with state-of-the-art animation, MyCyberTwin brings a distinct and advanced virtual specialty to businesses,? explains CEO Liesl Capper. The secret sauce behind ?brain technology? is the virtual agents? ability to learn as they go, ?allowing them to consistently get smarter and function at a higher level as time moves on,? Capper adds. NASA has recently implemented the technology suggesting a real-life HAL might not be far behind.

Chat bots have existed in various forms since the mid-60s. MIT?s Joseph Weizenbaum is credited with creating one of the first, ELIZA, a program that used a primitive form of natural language processing to simulate a real conversation with its interlocutor via text-based exchanges. Thousands of so-called ?chatterbots? have spawned since with customer service implementations facilitating millions of monthly ?conversations? (San Francisco-based VirtuOz claims12 million such interactions a month for clients in the Fortune 1000).

But can a virtual agent pass the Turing Test? Developed in 1950 by researcher Alan Turing, the test was originally devised to answer the question ?Can machines think?? and uses natural language conversation with a human as its principle gauge. Though the test has been criticized by such heavy weights as philosopher John Searle for conflating rhetorical manipulation for cognition, the test remains something of a gold standard if only for proving the fallibility of an artificial intelligence?s human interlocutor. The goal of companies like MyCyberTwin isn?t to fool people into thinking their product is human but rather improve the customer experience but interfacing with them in a manner they?re most accustomed ? like humans. As online insurer Esurance proclaims in its current ad campaign ?People when you want them, Technology when you don?t.?

Ultimately, however, most consumers would prefer not to have to communicate with customer service at all, whether that be in Manila or on with HAL on some customer service odyssey. The virtual agent will surely learn this long before the companies who employ — but then again, they can’t hear you scream in virtual space.

Why Do Men Put Their Penises Online?

?To tweet or not to tweet?? ? that should have been the question for former U.S. representative Anthony Weiner whose infamous social media snafu made him and his briefs-ensconced boner a household name synonymous with ?moron.? Not only did Weiner?s foray into softcore porn (and subsequent revelations about ?sexting? with numerous women) provide a wide berth for dick jokes and puns of every stripe (which he?s probably endured since grammar school on account of his name), it cost him his career in politics.

The argument that what one does in one?s private life is should not be subject to public scrutiny went out the window when Weiner made his privates public by inadvertently posting them into his Twitter stream rather than as a direct message to 21-year-old Washington state woman.

It begs the question, ?Why do men put their penises online?? Respond to any ad on Craigslist and, as many can attest, one stands a one in five chance of receiving a poorly-lit jpeg of some dude?s cock. It?s a wonder that no one has started an amateur porn site called ?Craig?s Dicks? comprised exclusively of prick pics culled from the personal ads juggernaut. Chatroulette, the video chat service that randomly pairs participants in two-way tet-a-tets is notorious as veritable museum of male masturbation.The site rapidly cycles through chat pairings with either user given the option to hit ?next? and move on to another chat ? usually within seconds. After cycling through eight live images of users in front of their web cams ? Bingo! ? a crotch shot at the ready.

In the pantheon of paraphilias, exhibitionism is perhaps the most benign though clinicians describe it as ?coercive? since it usually involves forcibly imposing one?s genitalia into another line of sight without their consent. The notion of an old-school trench coat-clad flasher is damn near quaint compared to the lone gunman taking aim at a webcam.

Albeit, confronting an exhibitionist in the flesh is surely a harrowing experience, however, it does permit one the ability to express one?s revulsion, reciprocate with bodily harm or perhaps even flash back (any of which, may or may not be the offenders goal). The online penis parader, however, uses social media to broadcast their exhibitionism from the comfort of their own homes. It combines the privacy end-users of porn expect from direct delivery of content to their laptops (no more embarrassing visits to the ?adult? section of the video store ? hell, for that matter, no more video stores!) with the inversely proportionate ability to broadcast oneself freely, cheaply and nakedly to millions with relative anonymity and without retribution.

This is perhaps one reason that everyone from media pundits to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi came down so, um, hard on Anthony?s weiner. It was if he received the aggregate slap back awaiting all the faceless exhibitionists lurking on the Internet. Consider his monkey spanked. To gauge the size of your “e-penis” click this humorous if NSFW link, which uses your Twitter handle to measure your size online.

Update: Carlos Danger. ‘Nuff said.

iCloudius: Apple’s Man in the Sky

When it rains it pours for Apple CEO Steve Jobs. The lauded gadget guru qua rainmaker came out of medical leave to formally introduce attendees of Apple?s World Wide Developers Conference to a bevy of new products, among them the much anticipated announcement of the iCloud. Apple?s own spin on so-called cloud-computing, which, sans the weather whimsy, simply refers to information stored in remote servers and accessible via your device of choice anywhere there is a decent Internet connection.

Though the concept isn?t new (telephone companies once used the metaphor to describe their early forays into ?virtual private networks?) its implementation in tech quarters gained real momentum in 2006 when Amazon introduced its Elastic Compute Cloud, a service that obviated the need for expensive server systems and paved the way for a bevy of start-ups. It was Google, however, that brought the cloud to civilians with its suite of document creation tools (aimed squarely at Microsoft?s bread and butter). Now, with iCloud, Apple has also entered the consumer cloud market, touting synchonization of one?s digital data ? docs, email, calendars, iTunes library, videos and plans for world domination, between one?s MacBook, iPad, iPhone and beyond. And it?s free.

Heretofore, one?s computer was like the sun in a private digital solar system around which all other devices orbited and depended for data (through increasingly arcane syncronization rituals). Conceptually, iCloud collapses this solar system into a single celestial body accessible, anywhere, anytime by whatever piece of gear happens to be in your hand. It?s as if you?re opening a wormhole into the fabric of your virtual universe andt hough other companies offer aspects this ?unified field theory of your stuff online,? including Amazon?s ?Cloud Drive? and Google?s Gmail inbox (sort of), none offers total integration of everything in a single service that?s hardware-agnostic.

This is the crux of Jobs? plan, ?demoting? the ?PC? and even his own company?s iconic Mac line to mere, as he explained, ?devices.? Of course, to those who?ve eluded induction into the cult of Apple, the company?s products have always been mere devices. For true believers, however, they?re tantamount to religious talismans that signify belief in a higher being ? namely Jobs. His conceptual downgrading of his stock and trade might prove as revelatory a moment in the history of personal computing as Macintosh did for user-experience in the early 80s. It takes the way we deal with data, the ones and zeroes that comprise much of our quotidian experience not to mention whole flanks of our self-concept and moves them from the concrete to the abstract, from ?there? to ?everywhere,? in a manner analogous to going from the corporeal to the spiritual (which, by some accounts, Jobs might be soon doing). The device, like the body, is but a vessel.

?We?re going to move the digital hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud,? Jobs beamed. It?s not hard to imagine him hovering there too ? lightning bolt in hand.

Venture Capital: Start Me Up

Money makes the world go around?really, really fast?which is why one’s head tends to spin with each new billion-dollar valuation and smug twenty-something on a magazine cover. This isn’t anything new; it’s even something of a Bay Area tradition. Or at least that’s the impression one might get watching Something Ventured, Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s documentary exploring the history of venture capital and the men who first saw dollar signs in Silicon Valley.

“We start at the back, and if the numbers are big, we look at the front to see what kind of business it is,” laughs the dapper Tom Perkins, early in the film. Perkins is the gimlet-eyed partner of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who successfully funded companies like Google, Amazon and Genentech. The film, which screened earlier this month at the San Francisco International Film Festival, serves to remind that not only did these swaggering money men make possible companies like Apple, Atari, Cisco and Intel, but they’re responsible for recasting the American dream with a geek sensibility.

At the Founder Conference in Mountain View last week, the geeks were in full force, attending panels and seminars with titles like “Can You Really Raise Angel Money with One Email in 2011?” (I wasn’t able to get the answer.) Presented by’s not a typo, but rather a spelling both predicated on the availability of domain names and a hip, post-dot-com disregard for vowels (think “Flickr”)?the conference was crammed. According to its romance copy, organizers promised a “simple alternative to incorporating for Web 2.0 startups,” which came in the form of meet-ups and some order of “virtual company product.”

Whichever way companies surely sprang from the event, it was evident that cash was flowing. The numbers, it’s worth noting, were not in the obscene, let’s-buy-a-foosball-table amounts of last decade, but rather sober seedlings of cash that almost seemed quaint. I overheard a sharp-dressed man talking loudly on a mobile phone, insisting to his interlocutor that he “can get you $50,000 in seed money right now, if that’s all you want. People love the concept?you’re a candlemaker in Marin!”

Sure, candlemaking might not be Facebook material, but here was a guy in a suit obviously excited about the notion. This is what the Bay Area does best?it takes little ideas, infuses them with passion, smarts and drive, and turns them into big ideas. Even my toddler son seemed to get the bug. He filched a penny from my coat pocket and promptly threw it in the fountain?a small investment that turned an otherwise banal water feature into a wishing well.

Publish Your Goddamn Book Already

Publishing is dead. Long live publishing. Or at least, self-publishing, which, thanks to a plethora of services and a general de-stigmatization of the so-called vanity press could be entering something of a golden era. So where are the literary breakouts?

The through-line from Gutenberg’s invention of movable type to the desktop publishing revolution of the mid-’80s to our present social-media megaphones, which permit instantaneous publishing of any thought to traverse from one’s temporal lobe to one’s fingertips, can be graphed with a zigzag darting between the authors and publishers and whoever thinks who is in charge at any moment.

Turns out, the author has always been in charge. Moreover, the social acceptance of blogging and other forms of essentially self-published writing has fomented a sea change in the minds of authors who once fretted whether their work was legitimate or not if it hadn’t passed through the hands of a third party. Remarkably, until the 20th century, most literary works were author-published, an MO that seems to be returning thanks to a myriad of new publishing solutions that have emerged in the past decade.

Besides the ubiquity of print-on-demand services like CreateSpace and Xlibris that provide an a la carte menu of services to escort one’s work from a manuscript file to a printed paperback, the burgeoning eBook phenomenon is rapidly becoming where one is most likely to find the next Jonathan Franzen or Sarah Vowell.

Electronic readers are approaching market ubiquity. At present writing, at a cafe, three of the four people reading on the patio are doing so on electronic devices?two Kindles and one iPad; the lone analog holdout is reading a yellowed, dog-eared paperback that looks as if it were rescued from a recycle bin. Apple’s online iBook store, Amazon’s Kindle Store and Barnes & Nobles’ Nook store are among the throng of new venues for the written word now available to authors. Pushing written content to readers online has been here since day one of the internet. But the ability of readers to push real dollars back up the pipe to the author, conveniently, safely and instantly is something else entirely.

New companies are springing up to facilitate these transactions and deliver “creator-owned” content (as they say in the indie comics trade) into your digital devices. Among them is independent music stalwart CD Baby, which took its music marketing model (they aid direct-to-consumer music sales for bands via downloads and on-demand CD delivery) and retooled it for authors. Book Baby is among the latest ventures serving this emerging market, helping authors place their creations on iPads and alike for a nominal fee.

It’s high time the would-be literati exhume their treatises and tracts, tell-alls and tomes from the virtual drawers of their laptops and begin the next renaissance in letters. The sound the next literary lion makes won’t be a roar so much as a click.