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Is systemic use of AI already in control of our lives?

Updated: Mar 11

Sally Goddard Blythe

A personal view


On three occasions this week, I have been reminded that we are no longer in control of ordinary human affairs.  Acts which used to be simple and under individual control have become prey to “systems”, often outsourced and only capable of dealing with binary answers.

Last week we had some building work carried out at home.  The builder had done a good job and I wanted to pay him before he left.  My banking app. did not recognise his account details on the first and second attempt and blocked any subsequent transactions.  On telephoning my bank, the payee account was recognised and payment was authorised.  The following morning, I opened a text from the bank saying that they thought a fraudulent transaction had taken place. As I had not seen or replied to the text from the bank the previous evening, they had cancelled the payment and put restrictions on my account.

On telephoning the fraud department it was not possible simply to confirm that I had authorised the payment and would like it to be made immediately.   The call required the person at the other end to go through 20 minutes of questions, many of which were intrusive and not relevant to the case we were discussing:

Had the payee solicited me for payment?        No

Had I received an email request for money?    No

Did I have an invoice?                                              Yes

How had I received the invoice?                           In person in printed form

What was the payment for?                                  Work commissioned by me

Had I obtained a quote in advance?                    Yes

Was I satisfied with the quote?                             Yes

Had I received other quotes?                                 No

Why had I not obtained other quotes?               Work satisfactorily completed

Why was I making the payment?                        To pay for work carried out

Was I satisfied with the work?                               Yes

Why did I want the payment to made now?     To pay for completed work?

Why had I made a payment to another contractor the same day?   


And so it went on.  No matter that I explained that I had authorised the payment and wanted it to go through.  Nothing would change the pre-set list of questions the person on the other end had to ask.

Last week I tried to arrange a blood test at our local hospital.  This is usually quicker than waiting for a blood test to be carried out by a nurse at the GP practise.  On going on to the online site, no appointments were available for the next seven days.  When clicking on “next”, the system would not show any appointments more than seven days in advance.   On trying again at the beginning of the following week, all appointments for the next seven days had also become unavailable.  There was no way to proceed with making an appointment.

At the weekend newspapers reported that some A&E departments have set up an online check-in system.  The way the system has been devised requires the patient to wade through 14 pages of multiple-choice questions before asking, “have you lost a lot of blood?” It even asks if you are 'spurting' blood before summoning a doctor. Staff behind reception were told to direct patients to the online system irrespective of their state on arrival.  Patients were bleeding onto the floor.

These “systems” are not fit for the purpose of dealing with rapidly changing human needs.  Furthermore, the system has no personal responsibility for the person at the other end.  If the person cannot complete or answer questions correctly, the request is either not processed or inappropriate action is taken.   There is no leeway or compassion for dealing with individual human or circumstantial needs.

Not only are the processes involved frustrating and time consuming, they  also add  layers of stress to the human condition: difficulty in posing the question; inability to obtain satisfactory answers or outcomes; having to retain and recall information that may not be readily to hand; lengthy delay in receiving a response underpinned by the over-riding knowledge that the system simply does not care.

This binary thinking is also dangerous in shaping minds and attitudes in the young.   Designed by brains that think using digital language, it limits the possibilities for understanding the complexity of situations and possible solutions.  If you grow up in a world where there only two possible answers to the questions you ask and even your questions are fashioned for you, how do you learn to explore other possibilities and find alternative answers?   The conundrums of living things are often not as simple as a yes or no answer but require juggling layers of uncertainty, ambiguity understanding, compromise and willingness to adapt behaviour.  No wonder that there is a rise in the number of adults questioning whether they have autistic “traits”, attention deficit disorder, information overload and an overwhelming  feeling of helplessness in a world in which they have no power to influence events.  Many years ago, an author described situations of hopelessness and helplessness as being toxic to the heathy functioning of the human immune system.

Technology contributes so much to the modern world but what was designed to be a tool for life has rapidly become the way of life.  As humans, capable of wonderful acts of creativity and altruism if we continue to accept the spread of “systems” over needs we will continue to see a decline in mental and physical health.

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