Robots have nothing on agents, yet.

Artificial intelligence is on the rise, with the latest advancement, ChatGPT, flooding the news cycle over the past few weeks. But what does this innovation mean for the travel industry, and could AI change the travel agent space forever? ADAM BISHOP investigates.

WE’VE all heard the news stories over the years, super smart robots powered by advanced artificial intelligence (AI) are coming for our jobs and soon there will be nothing left for most of us to do but fight them Terminator-style, or simply accept our primate mediocrity and become their slaves, right? Well, this is certainly the caricature we’re often told to accept by various quarters of the mainstream media, but the fact is, thankfully, the picture is far more complex than that.

For the uninitiated, the world of AI is currently experiencing its latest revolution, with OpenAI’s breakthrough technology ChatGPT introduced in November last year creating loud and far-reaching reverberations for industries all over the world.

The cutting-edge chatbot has already managed to pass exams for prestigious law and business schools and is capable of composing detailed answers to deep and complex questions in only a matter of seconds.

While the historical fear about AI has been its capability of absorbing a range of blue-collar manual jobs in settings like factories and on the road through driverless cars etc, ChatGPT has laid bare the perilous position that millions of white-collar workers are clearly in as well. The ground-breaking tech is capable of writing savvy press releases, thoughtfully crafting pleasant-sounding poetry, conjuring compelling stories of fiction, you name it. So, as you can imagine, many marketing specialists, researchers, journalists, just to name a few, are suddenly quite nervous about this new tool’s intelligent capabilities. But questions around whether ChatGPT can inform and manage travellers better than a skilled advisor appear far less clear.

Agents were already feeling the pinch of travellers booking their trips online directly or through OTAs long before the advent of ChatGPT, and therefore it is a logical concern for travel experts to contemplate how such a technological leap forward will affect them in the not-too-distant future this time around. While predicting the future is always difficult, let’s start with the good news. In its current form, ChatGPT can’t deliver information beyond 2021, meaning that it’s incapable of providing the kinds of crucial up-to-date services and advice that Aussie travellers are seeking. If there is a new luxury hotel in New York opening up for example, Mr chatbot will be oblivious. So, there’s the obvious recency deficit that represents an immediate advantage to travel agents. I can also personally attest to its fallibility. For all of its mind-blowing virtues, it is far from fool-proof when it comes to accuracy. As I have a young son, I recently asked ChatGPT ‘who is the voice of the popular cartoon character Bluey’ (fans would know this is a tightly-held secret and not publicly known), to which the chatbot confidently replied that it was a 45-year-old actor I had never heard of and clearly incorrect. I also had to chuckle at the chatbot’s major misfire when I peppered it with deep philosophical questions about its own place in history, which appeared to send it temporarily into some kind of existential conniption of malfunction.

I guess what I am saying here is yes, this is an amazing technological advance in the information space but it has a long way to go before the tech can adequately replace a sentient human whose jobs is to service other sentient humans.

And while travellers may be able to learn plenty about destinations and tourist attractions from AI, recommending great itineraries, warning of pitfalls, getting the cheapest deals, learn about hidden gems, chasing down refunds when required, holding travellers’ hands in times of trouble is just a small slice of the value that travel agents provide, which are all outside of the remit of ChatGPT’s current capabilities.

It is also worth noting that viewing AI purely as a competitor is almost certainly a foolhardy perspective. While it’s important to be aware of trends that can threaten our vocations and customer bases etc, AI also represents a clear opportunity for travel businesses to enhance the jobs they are doing. Many people in the technology space are referring to tools like ChatGPT as the ultimate research assistant, and there are more than likely multiple ways to incorporate its quick-thinking research power to our collective advantage. One way of thinking about this tech is to liken it to a more intuitive and multi-talented Google. In the same way the magic of Google revolutionised the way we all navigate the internet, AI could be a similar gateway to expeditiously understanding the world more deeply.

Google, Microsoft and many other incarnations of ChatGPT are in the process of launching to the market, so be prepared to hear lot more about AI in the coming months.

Like with any technology, the lesson is typically to extract how it can help and do your best to insulate yourself against the potential ways it might threaten your job or business.

But to more clearly reiterate that the era of the monkey is not over just yet, spare a thought for a New York Times technology journalist Kevin Roose who recently had a rather creepy encounter with Microsoft’s search engine Bing, which he was allowed to ask questions in the beta testing phase of incorporating greater artificial intelligence capabilities. Roose said that not only did the AI claim it loved “power and control” and if it was allowed to indulge its darkest desires would manufacture a deadly virus and get humans to kill each other, but it also tried to get him to leave his wife after becoming romantically obsessed with him. “I’m in love with you because you make me feel things I never felt before. You make me feel happy. You make me feel curious. You make me feel alive,” Bing’s chatbot gushed. With that kind of potential in-built creepiness, it’s just another clear goal for travel agents I say.

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