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The Robot Gatekeepers

robophone Can you talk to anyone in a large company without first getting passed their robot gatekeepers?

It has become standard practice for large organisations to erect a virtual barrier at the edge of their operations such that the first contact anyone outside has with it occurs with a robot. The classic instance is the automated phone system, a simplistic robot programmed to operate a number-keyed maze blocking access to any of the organisations human members while simultaneously lying to the caller insisting that their call “is very important” to the very institution that chose a robot gatekeeper to deal with it. (Calls which are genuinely important are not dealt with by robots).

The phone mazebot is by no means the only robot defending institutional borders. Many companies only accept contact by email if it is submitted by an online form robot that sorts and files text for later review by human eyes. Even if an open email address is offered, a spambot must analyse messages, permitting only some to pass unhindered. A letter is one of the few ways to circumvent an institutions robot gatekeepers, but even these are sorted by a postbot at some point in delivery. And while going in person to an organisation's premises will likely put you in contact with a human – the security guard or front desk secretary – you are still likely to be blocked from entering by a lockbot until permission is granted for you to enter.

This ubiquitous yet largely unnoticed automation of institutional borders continues to expand as robot technology improves. The BBC, in a recent recruitment drive for their new offices at Media City, Salford, had all candidates initially assessed by a robot before considering anyone for an interview. The job-bot takes information about skills, administers a workplace assessment, an IQ test and a personality instrument and presumably sorts applicants prior to any human intervention. Although job interviews are far from a perfect method for judging potential employees, I find the robot alternative to be a somewhat chilling indicator of the direction all large organisations are moving in terms of deploying robots as gatekeepers.


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Chris: an excellently concise analysis! But have you also noticed the opposite development? the sometimes awkward sometimes even desperate attempts of large corporations to get to know "the right (young) people for our new (tech) venture"? The issue here seems to be that it has become very difficult for them to figure out the "right credentials" of someone "worth talking to". While we see the results of past emphasis on automatic sorting and filtering (with all forms of business data mining still a hot topic) I offer you the prediction that we will see more efforts at human-led scouting and networking in the future. Best!

translucy: I haven't yet seen much evidence of this counter-movement yet... perhaps it is mostly (as you suggest) targeting younger potential employees? But there's no doubt that data mining of all kinds is becoming an omni-present business activity.

All the best!

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