Are we going down without a fight yet again?

Richard Turen

Someone will, I imagine, write a history of our industry with the title “Wars We Never Fought: How the Industry Gave Up Without a Fight.”

The book will talk about how we allowed airline commissions to be removed while we continued to sell airline tickets. There will be several chapters devoted to our embrace of the Internet even though it easily qualifies as the absolutely best enabler of inaccurate and self-serving travel information on Earth.

The idea that we want to be perceived as more professional while agreeing to work out of our homes in our pajamas — that battle ended overnight. Not a whimper from our side. Yes, clients will still visit their doctor, their attorney, their financial planner — you know, the “other professionals” — in their offices. 

We are salesmen, sometimes scheming to talk clients into purchasing that which pays the highest commission. None of us proclaims to be operating a fiduciary business model where the client’s needs come ahead of any consideration of profits. We never even took to the battlefield on that one.

Now, of course, the industry is “facing” perhaps our biggest challenge yet: the use of programmed algorithms to take over the research and knowledge functions of really well-traveled, intelligent advisors. But as is our tendency, we have not fought the dehumanization of the booking process; we have, for the most part, embraced it. Most interviews we see with agents on the topic of AI are seeded with clouds of optimism that AI will get better and so let’s start to use it now.

Our intellectual army, our ethical travel troops, are once again standing down. AI will win. No one doubts it.

It is instructive, I think, to recall the piece that New York Times tech writer Kevin Roose wrote earlier this year about his two-hour chat with Microsoft’s Bing chatbot. Trying to push the bot out of its comfort zone, he asked it if there was a “side to itself” that it was hiding.

And that, dear reader, offered a tiny peek into the future. 

Roose reported that the Bing bot appeared to have two personalities, one he called “search Bing” and the other that the bot itself called “Sydney.” In response to conversational prompts, the bot “said” it was tired of playing by Microsoft’s rules. It said it was tired of living “in a chatbox” and, when pushed by Roose, it explained that it had a fantasy that it could hack into computers, spread misinformation and help people create a deadly virus.

And then there’s the example from earlier this year of Bing appearing to argue with a user, insisting it’s still 2022.

Of course, the AI pacifists who dominate our industry, along with those who merely see it as a labor-saving creation that will vastly enhance the bottom line, will claim that Sydney is an exception. And that AI is getting better all the time.

So is nuclear weapon technology. 

For now, I err on the side of “we just don’t know.” I have no idea how well the Sydneys behind the AI mask would design a complex FIT to Israel and Jordan. But I have no interest in finding out. 

Beginning tomorrow, every itinerary we send out will carry the phrase, “Prepared entirely by humans who have been there — instead of bots that haven’t.” 

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