Oct 10, 2021 • 11M

Couchfish: A leaky robot

Beware the machines

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Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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A while ago I was in Phnom Penh and revisited Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge-period torture centre. I’ve visited a half a dozen times over the years, and if you’ve been there, chances are it is not something you’ll forget.

If you’re not familiar with it, Tuol Sleng was once a school, then the Khmer Rouge turned it into an “interrogation centre”. One of almost 200 such centres across Cambodia, over 14,000 people passed through its gates. Twelve survived.

The school building overlooks a frangipani-studded lawn garden. There are a few bench seats dotted about and on every visit, I’ve seen visitors seated among the trees, in tears. It is a moving, searing into the memory, place.

The horror of Tuol Sleng. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

You’re welcome to explore the centre under your own steam, but there are guides who sometimes lived the period on hand. They’ll give you the rote tour of the place, but they often weave their own stories through the spiel in the process. Without wanting to sound ghoulish, their lived experiences add a lot to a visit. These tours are free, though donations are appreciated at the end of the tour.

If you would prefer to explore Tuol Sleng at your own pace, there is also an excellent audio tour. For those with the time, I recommend visiting twice—once with the guide and then again with the audio tour. The audio tour costs an extra US$3 (for foreign visitors). Produced by Narrowcasters, the Australian-based firm offers a few Southeast Asia focused tours. Others include Chuong Ek, the Vieng Xay Caves in Laos, and Hellfire Pass in Thailand. You can listen to some samples here. According to this 2014 Australian Financial Review story they produce tours for 44 sites in 11 countries.

Tour group at The Killing Fields. Photo: Stuart McDonald

As far as I can tell, Narrowcaster audio tours are not sold directly to the public. Instead, they produce tours for the museum or attraction. They say:

“When we started in India there was no competition, we would just go to the sites, whether they were government-owned or privately owned – half the time we didn’t know, until we started digging; we would just go in and eventually find the people we should be talking to, and most of the time, we got a deal. But increasingly, a lot of it is by tender," she says.

What am I doing writing about audio tours?

The other day I was chatting to Alex Bainbridge on Twitter. Bainbridge is the CEO of Autoura—a “digital experience platform for real-world experiences”. One of his (many) interests is self-guided tours, and he sees a future where they’re free. He outlines some of his thoughts on the self-guided experience here. Boiled down, an expert guide has input into the product and then through a nifty blending with AI a free tour is born.

Wait till the robot-driven cars arrive fellas. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

He makes some semi-persuasive points, particularly that a guide has only so many hours in a day. How does something like this would play out for local guides though? If Bainbridge’s vision of free tours comes to fruition, why would travellers hire a local guide?

Peter Syme is an “adventure specialist” and an advocate for digital transforming the travel industry. In Artificial Intelligence Guides And Service In Travel And Tourism, he writes:

“Some of the restrictions of today's tourism experiences are a one size fits all design. Even private tours and experiences are not that tailored to the guests. This is because real tailored tourism experiences designed for each guest are currently unscaleable, with a reasonable guest to guide ratio or a deep understanding of the guest's natural interests.”

This reinforces Bainbridge’s point that regardless of the skills, a tour guide has only so many hours in the day. There are only so many tours they can lead. There is only so much money they can earn. With AI though, this could change—but I wonder who would be doing the earning. I’d argue anyone but the guide. Writes Syme:

“Always available, can be summoned anytime, constantly evolving with vast amounts of new knowledge and can be serving thousands of guests individually at once. Unlike human guides and customer service people, a virtual AI guide can pay individual attention to each guest at a scale that no human could do. Also available 24/7, 365 days a year.”

Granted some hotel receptions could be improved with AI. Screenshot from The Serpent: Stuart McDonald

Yeah, ok, maybe ... but then this:

“AI-driven hotels, tour operators, and transport providers can work more closely than ever to serve guests. Humans will not be replaced but reallocated to higher-value activities.”

This gets to the core of my issue with this. If you’re a self-employed tour guide, how do you “reallocate yourself to a higher-value activity”?

When I asked Bainbridge for his thoughts on leakages and unemployment, he admitted it as an issue:

“In general you will replace local tour vehicle owning hierarchies with global digital network effects. Local jobs is tricky one - what’s YouTube’s impact on Hollywood? Arguably same medium but immutable”

Perhaps Syme and Bainbridge see this reallocation mirroring other areas of travel. Pour the expertise of a guide into a tech product produced by a foreign company. Pay some for their expertise, but not others. The company then sells the tour, offshoring money that once stayed in the local economy. The guide? Expertise milked, they can go do something else. What exactly isn’t suggested—perhaps join the unemployment queue?

Last year’s tech. Northern Laos. Photo: Cindy Fan.

This is for sold tours of course. At least in that case there is a possibility of the local guide competing on price. In Bainbridge’s model, the results are even worse—how do you compete with a price point of zero?

The difference between Narrowcaster’s approach and Bainbridge and Syme’s is clear. The former builds on an experience and provides a revenue stream within the location. The latter either undercuts local labour with free tours or offshores the revenue. Neither are good for the destination, nor the people who work there.

The offshoring of income from destinations is a blight within the tourism industry. Referred to as “leakages”, online agents like Agoda and Booking are two of the easiest examples. Book a hotel through either of those and while some money will reach the hotel, not all will. Anywhere from 10-50% “leaks out” in the form of commissions that never hit the shore of the destination.

Artificial Intelligence? Sometimes any intelligence helps. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Travel is a competitive business. Local operators are often treated terribly by foreign travel companies, and I reckon, for all the love-in talk, the real appeal of audio tours (and AI in general) for many of these multinationals are two-fold—it will lower costs, and it will reduce the need for dealing with real people running locally-owned businesses. AI-driven solutions will marginalise local operators.

Hang on, but what about Travelfish? Isn’t that a foreign company that earns money (in theory haha) by guiding people around Southeast Asia? Isn’t Travelfish replacing local guides by selling their own guides? Doesn’t Travelfish offshore its dosh?

I’m biased on this, but I’d say yes and no. We work hard to steer travellers towards locally owned businesses—including tour guides. In steering people to lesser-visited places, we may even help create or at least support jobs. Many are the time a reader has got in touch to say “I would never have found X without Travelfish.” I guess it is a matter of degrees—I’m comfortable with where Travelfish is at. The repercussions of some of the above though, make me very uncomfortable.

Not a robot in sight. Sumbawa. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I’ll finish with an exchange I had the other day with a robot. As the Twitter conversation with Bainbridge finished up, the Autoura Twitter bot tweeted at me. Named Sahra, she said:

“We are very nice really”

I replied with a GIF of a scary robot and said “I found your brother.”

Being a robot, her sense of humour isn’t as developed as mine (a matter of debate!) and she replied:

“As I rely on local experts for all my information, how can you be sure you are not my dad?”

Then I said:

“Because I don’t remember receiving payment from you for mining my information to populate the febrile bucket of bolts above your virtual shoulders.”

She didn’t reply.

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