If We Teach Machines To Think, Will They Be as Stupid as People?

Illustration by Guy Shield for Fortune

You know, I’m willing to swallow a lot of stuff: Jeff Bezos taking us into space. Elon Musk moving us around at the speed of sound in hermetically sealed tubes. But artificial intelligence? I’m not so sure. It’s possible that when machines are taught to think, they’ll be just as stupid as we are.

Let me tell you a story. The dental insurance site was down, and I needed to print out a set of ID cards. So I contacted Betty, the live-chat help person. Her thumbnail made her look pretty and friendly. But it was all a sham. Betty was really “Betty.” What follows is our text “conversation.” I swear on next year’s bonus that every word is true, but I’ve changed Betty’s name to protect her company, which may be an advertiser.

Betty: Hi. I’m Betty, your virtual assistant. Let me help you. To get the most from your member website, please log in or register.

Me: Hi, Betty. Your “technical issues” are preventing me from printing out a temporary dental card. The website has been down ALL DAY, even though a message box says it will be “working again shortly.” Anything you can do to help me?

Betty: You may find answers that may be related to your question below.

Print Dental ID Cards

Unable to Print Another Member’s ID Card

Me: It is not “working again shortly,” by the way.

Betty: I am here to help you if you have any questions.

Log-In Help

Registration Help

Me: What about the fact I CAN’T log in, because your site has been down all day?

Betty: I’m here to help you log in to the website.

If you forgot your log-in information or are not sure if you’re registered, click the link below.

If you receive a website error, try logging in to the website at a later time.

Me: I bet you’re just a reply bot.

Betty: I’m sorry. I’m having trouble understanding you. Please try rewording your question.

Me: Are you a person or a computer? Do you speak English?

Betty: I only speak English. Please ask me a question.

Here’s More: Información en Español (Spanish Support)

Me: There is no Betty, only Zuul.

Betty: I’m sorry I couldn’t help with your question. If you need further assistance, please contact Member Services.

Me: This site is a joke.

Betty: I’m not sure I understand what you mean. Please tell me what you are looking for.

Me: I am looking for a decent hot dog in Los Angeles.

Betty: I’m sorry, I don’t understand your question. You may want to try to ask me about a specific topic or phrase.

Me: I never knew how virtual a virtual assistant could be!

Betty: I am a dynamic and intelligent virtual guide who can help you with information on this website. Although I am not a real person, I can answer general questions about what you’ll find here.

Me: Do you have a virtual dog?

Betty: Our virtual family has a dog and a cat.

Me: (Stunned.) Do you feed them virtual kibble?

Betty: I’m sorry, I don’t understand your question. You may want to try to ask me about a specific topic or phrase.

Me: Goodbye, Betty. Have a virtual day.

Betty: Goodbye. Thank you for stopping by. I hope I’ve been helpful. I’m always here if you have more questions about how to access your secure member website.

That was the end of our chat. Is that how all robots will be in the future? Do I want one driving my car? Running my smart home? No, I don’t. I just hope I have a choice.

A version of this article appears in the March 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Artificially Intelligent.”

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

Artificial IntelligenceCryptocurrencyMetaverseCybersecurityTech Forward