Hot bots and parking lots – Frank McNally on the ups and downs of technology

The chatbot signed off wishing me “an awesome rest of your day!”

The chatbot even had a name – “Paul” – and thanked me for “reaching out”, saying he would “love the opportunity to help resolve any issues”. Photograph: Getty Images

In the US recently, trying to cancel a subscription, I found myself doing so via an online chatbot that mimics human conversation.

The subscription was for a “VPN”, hastily acquired in the hope of seeing certain sports events from home, unavailable abroad unless you can cod the terrestrial stations about where you are. But the ruse failed miserably. The games went unwatched.

On the plus side, the service was only $3 a month. On the minus, the sign-up period was two years. So rather than consign this to the pile of unused subscriptions, I braced myself for the customer complaints department.

At first, I thought the agent at the other end of the chat-box was real: it can be hard to tell in America. He even had a name – “Paul” – and thanked me for “reaching out”, saying he would “love the opportunity to help resolve any issues”.


But after a few exchanges, I guessed he was a bot. So, politely but firmly, I retyped: “Please just cancel the subscription”. And – lo! – without further hesitation, he did, announcing cheerfully that he had already processed the refund.

So I thanked him for the prompt service. Then he thanked me “for the wonderful opportunity to speak with you!” and asked if I would give feedback about our conversation. To which I said: “of course!”

When he offered only two options – that my experience was “good” or “bad” – I regretted there wasn’t an “excellent”. It had been a pleasure dealing with him. By the time Paul signed off wishing me “an awesome rest of your day!”, I was genuinely emotional.


Not long afterwards, my flight out of South Bend, Indiana, got cancelled because of bad weather and I had to rebook, this time via a human being.

There was a risk of an enforced overnight in Chicago but a friend in the same boat managed to change the booking online for a flight later the same day. I, however, was referred to a phone agent: a woman with limited English, a strong accent, and a seeming inability to understand a word I said.

Repeatedly, for reasons unclear, she offered a next-day flight, although I knew there were seats available today. My tech-savvy friend, meanwhile, started clicking on the laptop and, while the agent was still saying it was impossible, rebooked me on the day’s later flight.

So now I announced cheerfully to the agent that my problem had resolved itself and I need trouble her no longer. But she seemed unable to accept this sudden change in circumstances, prolonging the conversation with various circumlocutions.

Was it that the call was recorded for training purposes and she needed to impress? Had I offended her ego by solving the problem independently? Whatever the reason, she kept me on the line, discovering several new complications, while I attempted several new explanations for why our conversation had become superfluous.

Despite the cultural gulf, it was that quintessentially Irish situation: neither of us could hang up. Eventually, I did, as decorously as possible: assuring her again that she’d been very helpful, but that I really had to run.


Dropping my son off to a music competition in darkest South Dublin last weekend, I killed time before his performance by making my second ever visit to Dundrum Shopping Centre. No sooner had I parked there than I realised my card wallet was in my other jacket and I had no cash.

But wait! I had an iPhone and a new Apple Watch – the latter as yet unexplored but making various intelligent noises on my wrist. Could I pay with those, as the tech-savvy did?

Why yes, it turned out. I remembered my card number.

So a few easy instructions later, I was swanning around DSC settling accounts with a flash of the wrist and feeling like James Bond.

Then I went back to the car park and, just as had happened on the previous visit, couldn’t find my car. This time I had even memorised the location, mostly: it was Level 1 Red, and there was an “M” involved somewhere, which I now guessed must correspond to the grid pattern on the shopping centre maps.

But I walked the length and breadth of level one several times, clicking the car keys, in vain. Then, doubting myself, I double-checked with the payment machine intercom, which confirmed I was on level 1M, as remembered.

So I embarked on several more circuits, cross-referencing with the grid and going quietly mad, before the revelation dawned that the “M” stood for “mezzanine”, another level up.

Luckily, there was a human on the exit ramp intercom. When I started to explain why my payment period had elapsed, he lifted the barrier without a word.

No doubt a chatbot would have heard the story before too, but in this case I was in no humour to be wished an awesome rest of the day.