When I started out programming computers, many years ago, I learned two phrases: “Garbage in, garbage out” and “Computers only do what you tell them to do”.

I’ve been thinking of both of those phrases for different reasons the last fortnight.

There’s the CIPR’s new artificial intelligence panel, for one. Coincidentally, there’s a two-part BBC Click piece on AI v robotics, which is well worth a look (it’s Click, so always worth a look).

“Computer says no”

But I’ve also been battling the scourge of modern living: the phone and online help systems.

Sky, Virgin and others all encourage you to manage your account online. By “manage” they mean “buy more stuff” – if you want to save money, downgrade or leave, well you just have to phone up. And the call centre system doesn’t have the same records as the online version, so your userid and password aren’t recognised.

That’s why, every time I phoned up Sky on behalf of my mum, they wouldn’t do anything, even though I could log in to the account via web and their app. Why aren’t these systems connected?

As I write, I’ve been on hold to Virgin Media for 15 minutes. They offered me a new V6 TiVo; all fine, except my Series Links aren’t there and I could now see the adult channels. Fixing both of those issues was something I could do myself, if I’d been given the information beforehand; but I was advised to phone up. Then hold for 15 minutes, before the bloke who answered said “wrong team” and transferred me to the correct (and very helpful) team. Why not give out the correct number in the first place? And why do they think my account is at the house I sold four years ago?

Plan ahead

Sainsbury’s can’t deliver my shopping today because of the “adverse weather conditions.” These weather conditions have been forecast for some time, so why not prevent customers from trying to book those slots?

All those iOS apps that need updating, almost weekly, to fix bugs. Why not test them properly before releasing them into the wild?

My new favourite example: I logged on with my bank to get a new credit card. All fine, but then at the end it said I had to find and call in to my local branch with proof of my address. Said proof was my address, on a bank statement… from the same bank.

Madness, isn’t it?

People who worry about AI are right to do so; not because it will make us all redundant, or might inspire a Judgement Day-style apocalypse, but because AI systems start with humans. If we can’t even get our helpline and call centre systems set up properly, what chance to we have with anything else? Humanity won’t be doomed by the rise of the machines, but because someone didn’t test a few lines of code.