It was only a question of time. The problem with employing humans is that they want paying and, even in these days of zero-hour culture, they have some expectations as to terms and conditions. Even when they present themselves for work, they need time away from their post to go to the toilet and have lunch and the occasional cup of coffee. They suffer from mood swings and cannot be relied upon to present a friendly disposition at all times. Humans can generally only do one thing at a time and even when presented with a detailed script cannot be trusted not to go off-piste.
So much easier then to replace them with an automaton. And that is just what the London Borough of Brent – that erstwhile bastion of all things loony left and spiritual home of our Ken – Livingstone, I presume – have done. They have just unveiled Shanice, a hologram, who will operate as a virtual receptionist at their new £90 million Town Hall. Visitors to the Council will no longer have to fight for the attention of a human receptionist busily engaged in filing her nails or sorting out her social life on Facebook. Shanice, who has cost the Council £12,000, will appear to the visitor to be sitting behind a desk but will actually be projected on to a screen. Helpfully, she will be trained to answer a limited number of questions, including telling the denizens of the Borough where to go – no change there, then – although only to those parts of the buildings which deal with such matters as the registration of births and deaths, applications for marriage licences or citizenship.
So is Shanice the face of the brave new world? It certainly is an innovative approach but serious questions remain as to the efficacy of the solution. Brent, famed for the diversity of its population, has to provide advice and guidance on its array of services in a number of languages. What happens if someone presents themselves at reception and finds that Shanice cannot respond to their query in their first language? What happens if Shanice is asked a question which falls outside of her script? Will she be able to repeat herself for those who are hard of hearing? Will she be able to respond in signed language? What happens when there is a power cut or if/when the bugs in the software strike?
Inevitably, Shanice will have to be chaperoned and so, instead of representing a saving, like as not the employment of the holographic receptionist will be a cost – a cost that a council embroiled with its residents over closing such services as libraries can ill-afford to bear.
Still, there’s no such thing as bad publicity!