Helen checks into a hotel, versions one and two. In version one, I reach the desk with a sigh, let my bag slip to the floor and stand there passively while the check-in clerk goes through the routine, looking even more world-weary than I feel. It’s slick enough – all the details are accurately logged in on the system – but feels so joyless it seems to take an eternity.
Once I get to my room, though, there is a personal salutation – on the TV screen. ‘Welcome Helen Edwards’ it says, in big colourful capitals, against a vague sort of seascape scene. Do I feel better now? More valued? Less beaten down by my day on the road?
No. Whatever the cognitive systems that have been working with silent efficiency behind my booking, this crude attempt at artificial empathy does nothing but prompt me to reach for the remote. Artificial it certainly is; but empathy went missing when the hotel’s operations team thought they could separate out human warmth and zap it down the wires.
What about version two? It’s a similar mix of carbon-based life and silicon smarts, but with more of an organic flow. There are smiles. The personal greeting happens at the desk: "Ah, welcome back Mrs Edwards, I see we have a lovely room for you away from the elevators, as we have here on your profile. Oh, and I see from the pre-log that you’ve had a pretty long flight; would you like me to get your bags sent up while I arrange for some…er, yes, some green tea in the lounge?"
It’s not like she has remembered all my personal proclivities like an old-fashioned maître d' who recognised a thousand faces, knew what their aperitif would be and could probably name their first-born. She and I both know that the computer does the background scraping, and she takes her cues from there. But it works. I feel empathised with. Valued. Suddenly not so beaten up by my day. In version two, the fusion of cold technology and human warmth has produced an agreeable customer experience.