Sunday, December 11, 2011

Worse than a robot

I’m back in the US for a few days, a good time to order items that I can’t get in China, and that means borrowing the address of a friend to accept delivery. Since I come often, I try really hard not to wear out my welcome with these friends by making the pickup process as simple as possible.

This time I needed wanted a new iPhone 4S, which can have unpredictable arrival times, so I ordered it several weeks in advance. My friend happened to be out when the truck came, and I got an email notice offering to hold it instead at the main FedEx shipping center. Perfect! I thought: I’ll pick it up right after my plane arrives, early in the morning  with no need to intrude on my friend.

Seemed like a perfect plan until the lady at the FedEx counter asked for my ID. Of course I have my passport/drivers license, but the package was delivered to my friend’s name, and as the lady explained to me: “FedEx policy requires that the name on the package match the ID of the person picking it up”.

Well what I can do? I’m obviously who I say I am -- she sees my ID -- and I have the correct tracking number. It’s clearly my package. But policy is policy, according to the  counter lady. My only hope is to get my friend to call FedEx and change the name on the delivery. I explain that it’s early in the morning, my friend did me a favor by accepting delivery in the first place, and I don’t want to impose.  Sorry, she says.  “It’s policy”.

“Wait,” I say. “What’s to stop me from calling FedEx myself?”  I know the tracking number, the address of the original delivery, and I have an email that FedEx sent to me. Rather than ask my friend to call, why don’t I call myself, pretend to be the friend, and the problem is solved, right?

The counter lady hesitates. I have a good point, she admits, but now that she’s on to me, she says, she still won’t let me have the package because she’ll know it was me just faking to be my friend. The only thing I can do, she insists, is call my actual friend and get her to dial FedEx herself.

But that’s a hassle for my friend, who will have to drop what she’s doing to make a phone call, look up the tracking number, sit on hold.  I really don’t want to impose.  Too bad, says the counter lady. “Policy is policy”.

I called Apple. The person on the line was very friendly and accommodating, but Apple’s IT systems and FedEx IT systems are separate, so it could take as long as 24 hours before word of the different name on the address trickles into the FedEx office. The Apple person offers to speak directly to my FedEx lady, who replies “Nope: it’s policy”.

Finally, after too much time wasted already, I excused myself and went outside. I called FedEx and said I want to change the name on the delivery. No problem, they said. A few minutes later I went back to the counter lady, she looked up the entry and sure enough it’s okay to accept delivery from “Richard Sprague”.

Ugh.  What a waste.

This counter lady adds no value. By sticking so firmly to the rules, she was making herself into an automaton, the perfect job for a robot. Unlike a machine, though, she can’t work twenty four hours a day, and she needs to be paid.  So she’s actually worse than a robot!

If, on the other hand, she had used a little common sense -- the kind that is far more complicated to program into a robot -- she could have realized that my story makes complete sense. I am showing her a real ID, and I’m happy to give real additional contact information in case --against all logic--I am a criminal who somehow stole this tracking number, faked the email I showed her, and now is going through all the trouble of coming to the FedEx office -- in person -- to pick up a delivery of a brown box that has no indication of what’s even inside.

The US unemployment rate is too high, and there are a lot of proposals for how to “put America back to work”. But the unfortunate fact is that too many Americans are like this FedEx counter lady: doing work that is fundamentally replaceable by automation and robots. I don’t know what this particular women will be doing in five or ten years, but I know that if FedEx wants to continue controlling costs, they’ll need to look carefully at how much value she adds, and inevitably they will conclude that a robot is better for this work than she is.

It’s sad, because she, like all humans, has some skills that are extremely hard to replace with machines. But first she’ll need to start acting like a human, and not like a robot.

IMG 3843