By Jacques Laliberté
Our household requires a second vehicle and my 1989 Dodge Dakota pickup — hardy as it is, has over 233,000 miles on her — is only trusted for in-town lumber duty. As a freelance pet portraitist, I can only reasonably afford an older car model, spending under ten grand, if that. And I’d prefer a European Classic that will appreciate 400 percent during my ownership while attaining 80 mpg. All fantasy aside, I took the simple route in my car search — the new millennial one — and logged in to scan the websites of local auto purveyors, from frontage road Buy Here Pay Here lots’ garish sites to slick manufacturer’s dealer showroom portals.
They all pretty much use the same software to showcase inventory, allowing me to filter my choices by make and model, year, mileage, MPG ratings, number of cylinders, price range, even color. They are only missing filters for “number of $1,000s needed in immediate repairs” and “percent chance our mechanics didn’t discover the pot stashed in a fender well.”
Once on a website, scrolling down vertiginous listings of brawny pre-owed — not used, mind you — SUVs and last years’ trade-ins, you are confronted with endless pop-up windows that migrate infuriatingly across the screen like a lame Pong game. Portrayed by stock photos of Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, gorgeous salespersons with names like Nikki and Alexi seductively invite you to “live chat,” just as if you had clicked inadvertently on a racy dating site’s homepage.
I start my chat by typing in questions determined to reveal if I am actually texting with a human vs. an A.I. Nikki in a real-world application of the Turing test. The reason I am suspicious is because I was once on the phone for almost 10 minutes with a customer service “person” who turned out to be a sneakily cunning voice-simulation algorithmic program. I know this because he repeated “That’s great! Give me a moment to do that for you” every 30 seconds. Remember, it took me the full 10 minutes to figure this out. Nice guy, too.
My first question to Nikki therefore was about the turquoise Edsel Paramour I’d seen on their front lot. Nikki was on it straight away: “I am so glad you asked about that! Give me your name so I know who I am talking with.”
Me: “Fog Horn Leg Horn III.”
Then I wait a moment while clumsy algorithms plod across shiny Intel chips.
Nikki: “Glad to meet you Fog Horn Leg Horn AieAieAie. Give me just a moment to look up that vehicle for you. (Odd clicks).”
Me: “Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is twice the size of planet Earth. Will the Edsel make it across that easily?”
Nikki: “How soon are you looking to purchase a new vehicle Fog Horn Leg Horn AieAieAie? (Click-bzzt).”
Me: “Uh — about that Edsel, Nikki?”
Nikki: “(Clicks.) How soon do you plan to drive across Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Fog Horn Leg Horn AieAieAie?”
Finally bored of this and fairly sure of the Turing results, I place my cursor on the X in Nikki’s chat-box’s corner, score some Pong points, and move on.
Deciding to go the full monty, I use the site and apply for a loan. Foregoing any help from Nikki, I input a few particulars about myself, and the vast public web of my personal financial data, open accounts, payment history, felonies, charge-offs, and bankruptcies — stored in some hallowed “cloud” — does the rest.
I’ll have my loan answer within the minute, “Do Not Refresh Your Browser” warnings notwithstanding.
The next day, in what I took as a hopeful sign — and not just because he was a real person — a bank officer calls me. He’s looking over my loan app and has a few questions for me.
Bank Real Person: “I see you have a few charge-offs in the past.”
I reply I am fairly sure that they got paid off, eventually.
Bank Real Person: “Looks like there is a late payment on your MasterCard.”
Thinking it’s probably not something a bank wants to hear, I say “This probably isn’t what a bank wants to hear, but as an artist, money dealings are not a high priority for me, and I kinda don’t understand numbers all that well.”
Bank Real Person: “(Sighs, no clicks now.) You were late on your Volkswagen lease for several months running.”
Me: “No, that vehicle was actually repossessed long before that.”
I figure the truth is what a bank would want to hear.
Bank Real Person: “How much were you looking to borrow?”
Me, sighing: “Oh, I think eight grand will cover the type of vehicle Nikki picked out for me. Oh! And I’ll put $750 down,” I cheerfully add.
And on like that for a few minutes more. I thanked him for helping me out and hung up. Moments later I get an email from the dealer Nikki shills for. The salesman says I didn’t get the loan. He suggests it’d be best I sock a little money away in my checking account the next few months to prove income. He suggests I periodically go on his website — Hello Nikki! — to find the right vehicle.
Meanwhile, he suggests, “Try and not be (click) so freakin’ delusional about the car you can believably afford, and there’s no such car as an Edsel Paramour, (click), not in turquoise.”
Author and artist Jacques Laliberté was a 20-plus-year resident of Prescott, has written for and designed several publications and a novella. He often forgets the names of people he knows well. He willingly moved to Paulden a few years ago.