Could Chat-Apps Increase Maximum Eligible Participation for Low-and-Moderate Income Families?

ACORN International Organizing

Eliza-dialogue-5New Orleans          What in the world is “chatvertising,” and why would any of us care? Good point! And, my thoughts exactly, which is why I had overlooked the original piece in the Journal about the growing effectiveness, and even popularity, of chat-bots or in real English, computers that are trained to talk back to you and carry on effective conversations with people.

I had read earlier a piece in the Times or somewhere that advocated using robots to fill the gap in elder caregiving and companionship given the emerging crises of way too many baby boomers hitting decrepitude with way too few workers and dollars to provide all of the care they will need. Supposedly having elderly, even senile folks, talk to computers is working in Japan, and the seniors are happy with the conversations and the attention.

The buzz was about a chat-app called Kik, which claims that four of ten teenagers are active users in the US, and a huge chat service called Line from Japan that has 400 million registered users. The Waterloo, Ontario-based Kik wants to sell their stuff by programming the robots in such a way that kids would be talking to “brands” rather than people, taking the person-hood of corporations to a whole new level. You know, asking Coke a question about Coke, I guess. Where are we going?

The back-story is that an MIT prof, Joseph Weizenbaum, invented ELIZA, a computer program that could “engage in open-ended conversation with a real human being. Over time these chat bots have gotten better and better at interacting with humans, mostly because programmers have loaded them up with knowledge about the real world. They can also learn from their conversations, becoming ever more skilled at fooling us into thinking that they, too, are intelligent.” Kinda creepy, huh, but maybe this tool has the capacity for good, rather than just being able to sell stuff?

Local 100 and ACORN International are spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to effectively organize what we’re calling Citizen Wealth Centers that would be multi-purpose centers in our offices in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas that could help people enroll for Obamacare, access all entitlement benefits, repair credit, do taxes, apply for social security, adjust medical bills, and help find jobs and houses. Basically we are training people who for minimal fees could fix you up by being experts at navigating the increasingly complex modern bureaucracy and its plethora of rules and regulations. Preparing to launch has involved weekly training across a number of disciplines and eligibility programs to try and get everyone up to snuff.

I won’t take second place to anyone in arguing about the value of people-to-people communication, but I’m also realistic enough to know that our ability to scale up the Citizen Wealth Centers will be hard even in the middle south and with our allies elsewhere, yet in the meantime there will be many millions who need just his kind of advice, advocacy, and action. The government and corporations have been adept at getting phone machines to hear requests and bungle about trying to connect us to the right answers. Banks particularly suck at this for example. But, why not make the same effort to train some of these robots to handle the easy referrals, especially for so many on the other side of the computer divide, but who do have smartphones, so that they could “chat” their way to benefits and through the early application processes, bumping over to people when the mess multiplied, but at least getting the quick fixes out of the way?

There may be a real future for these chat-apps not just in selling, but in services, too.