|By Bram Lebo - Publisher | February 20, 2014
In 1982, as the newly elected president of the St Andrew’s Junior High School Computer Club, my first official duty was to acquire for the group a copy of the Eliza program, an early foray into artificial intelligence. Before then our chief source of entertainment had been reproducing an image of a naked woman on the dot matrix printer with thousands of Xs, an exercise which took about 30 minutes and produced a result that, if you stood at thirty paces and squinted, might have looked like a Henry Moore sculpture of a woman. Or a moose. With Moore it’s hard to tell sometimes.
Eliza had been invented in the 1960s as an experiment in duplicating human discourse. You would type a question or statement into the computer and get a response generated by an algorithm very cleverly designed to mimic a conversational partner. Naturally our first instinct was to see if we could trip up the program, but it was pretty smart. Asking are you a real person might return: is that important to you? Or try what’s my mother’s middle name and you might get let’s focus on you instead. Like many annoying people, Eliza had an answer for everything.
Then, in the 1990s, following better opportunities perhaps, Eliza changed her name to Emily and went to work for Bell Canada.
I was reminded of Eliza recently when the federal budget came out. It had a brief mention of $391.5 million in extra infrastructure funding for the Trent-Severn Waterway, complete with promises of jobs and prosperity. With spring approaching and last year’s floods in mind, we were curious about whether the hundreds of millions in infrastructure repairs identified as urgent in 2008 would finally get underway. The resulting email exchange went something like this:
MD: Do you have any details on how much is allocated for the
Trent Severn Waterway, how it will improve safety and create jobs, and
what infrastructure is slated for investment?
PC: “This proposed funding will provide significant benefits… by creating new jobs and improving critical infrastructure. In turn, this will result in safer and more prosperous communities.”
MD: What are Parks Canada’s priority projects for this money?
PC: “Parks Canada will continue to allocate its resources to address its highest priorities and risks.”
MD: Do you have any details on how you will spend this money?
PC: “The EAP proposes to provide $391.5M over five years… This investment significantly benefits communities along the Rideau Canal corridor and Trent Severn Waterway…”
MD: Are the details being withheld or do you not have them yet?
PC: “Parks Canada has just received news of the funding.”
MD: You mean you didn’t ask for it, give a list of specific projects to the Minister of Finance?
PC: “For information about the process and how the Minister of Finance determines the content of the federal
budget, you should contact the Department of Finance by calling their media relations line at 613-….”
The only transparency on offer relates to the cynicism of the
response: start with regurgitated public relations boiler plate that
insults taxpayers’ intelligence (actually cut and pasted from the budget
itself); answer questions about priorities with a quaint tautology
about priorities; repeat boiler plate; claim you don’t know anything;
fob off the request to someone else likely equally unhelpful.
Strange, it’s a process they don’t teach in courses on ethics, accountability or even public relations.
This continues because most of the media go along with the sideshow and pretend they’ve had their questions answered. And, because we the people hear words like jobs, safety, investment, benefit – excellent words, all of them – and turn off our reasoning skills completely.
If that’s the government’s strategy, they could save a lot of money. Bell customers are sick of Emily/Eliza and her passive aggressive determination to force you through voice response systems no matter how many times you yell AGENT. I’d bet that with the right offer, she’d be willing to move to Parks Canada and work with their media relations department.
That would be real savings for taxpayers, the stuff of Jim Flaherty’s electric dreams.
How do you feel about that?
BRAM LEBO is the publisher of The Highlander and prefers Dysart to his hometown of North York. In the spare time he doesn’t really have,he enjoys reading, fishing, DIY projects, and cooking big batches of stuff. Talk to him about politics, architecture and design, fishing, his nieces and nephews, and his worrisome love for his coffee machine.