Welcome to The Future is Human Podcast, where we explore the remarkable advancements shaping our world. Join me as we uncover the mysteries of science, technology, and innovation. Is technology finally delivering on its unfulfilled promise? We’ll delve into the boundless power of the human imagination. Discover the impact on society, ethics, and the essence of being human. Let’s shape the future together. [Music]
Hi, everyone, and welcome to the inaugural episode of The Future is Human Podcast. Today, I have a very special guest, Mr. Dave West, founder and CEO of Civicom, the parent company behind my favorite project, pagealive. How are you feeling, Dave?
Yes, good. [Laughter] Yes, thanks for doing this.
Thank you for coming on. It’s my honor. Beyond giving you the opportunity to tell your story, which is something that I’ve been very fortunate and lucky to hear and embrace, I think a lot of people could benefit from hearing it. But beyond that, I want to talk a little bit about pagealive, which is the reason we’re starting this podcast, right? We’re taking technology to maybe uncharted waters to a certain degree. While everyone else seems to be doubling down on AI, we’re doubling down on human-centric experiences, and I think we owe people an explanation as to why we’re doing that. So, where do you want to start?
Yes, so I started talking about the undelivered promise of technology, oh…
…maybe probably four or five years ago because we’ve all had experiences where technology didn’t do what it was supposed to do. I mean, technology was supposed to make our lives better.
Right? And there’s no doubt, in some ways, it really has. I mean, this device we have in our pockets.
These supercomputers, right?
I mean, it’s amazing…
…some of the things. We can think of apps…
…Google itself and some of these things are amazing. But there are these areas where it just feels like it’s gone in the opposite direction, right?
We’ve all been in situations where you’re on a website and you’re trying to figure out an answer to some question, and you’re on a landing page and they want you to start typing your question, and you’re getting answers back that just make no…
…sense at all. Now you’re 10 minutes into it and you’ve got…
…gobbledygook and you just want to talk to a person.
There’s no way to get to a person and it… [Laughter]
It’s almost like these call trees, right? Like the IVRs where you get the automated responses and you just keep pressing 0 or # to try to get to a real human being, except now that’s translated and transposed onto a website, and it frustrates people, right?
Yes. I mean, that is probably the worst example of what I call the undelivered promise of technology. But there’s another one where you’re trying to contact a company or just to talk to somebody, you have something you want to talk to somebody about. I would say 40 years ago, if you call the company headquarters and nobody answered, you would have assumed that that is not a viable company and it just is…
That’s a great point.
It’s just not credible. But today, you literally can’t get on the phone…
…to talk to people. And it’s almost, in some cases, you clearly can see that they don’t want to talk to anybody.
Or it feels intentional at times.
…it is clearly a situation where the technology made our lives worse.
I was on a – another example. I was traveling sort of at the end of COVID and there’s something to do with a test, a…
A COVID test.
A COVID test and I was late and I had to go back to some place. I was in a foreign country, and I found myself in a situation where I’m trying to fill in a form on my phone but I didn’t have a good internet connection – in fact, I don’t think I had any internet connection for a while. I finally got it, it was very slow, and I’m filling in a form that [Laughter] was asking me what county I stayed on in the country. I was like, “Ah, whatever.” I was like, “What is this?” [Laughter] I mean, what? But somebody’s just like was following the sheet because they could, right?
And there’s like, “Oh, fill in this form,” and they don’t care whether it takes you time. This is maybe the fourth time I had filled in a form related to COVID, and they were all supposed to be these global…
[Laughter] …you know, global, like, “We’re going to provide the universal solution for healthcare information.” So, you fill them all in and they’re all different and they all require some sort of security. We’re going to send a text to [Laughter] your phone.
Well, I’m in a foreign country and the text to my phone didn’t work. It was like a disaster. Then we’ve all had to…
And you had a flight to catch.
[Laughter] …and you had a flight to catch.
You have to. Yes, it was amazing. I spent probably an hour and a half basically filling in a form to get a test that took two minutes.
Yes, wild. There are probably hundreds of examples similar and like that.
I’m curious to get your thought and opinion because I ponder the thought and I ask myself, how did it get this bad, right? Because to your earlier point, technology was designed to make our lives better. I don’t think it was intentional.
I think, in some cases, it’s because the companies are using the technology to save money, right? So, it’s not really trying to create value; it’s trying to save money.
And you see that, the bar…
But is that that there’s detriment, you think?
I think it is. I mean, I think, no question, it is.
Right, I agree.
I mean, there are companies out there that people hate.
Yes. I could think of a [Laughter] few off the top of my head.
Think of some name, but I don’t want to…
I won’t name them.
…throw out any names here, but we know them. The large telecom and cable providers are probably the worst.
But a lot of them are the same.
The second thing I think is that a lot of people who are involved in web development are just following the sheep. They see – [Laughter] Yes, I was filling in a form for some new account. It was like a trivial thing where security really didn’t matter, but they wanted to send me a text to my phone number to confirm that I am who I said, and what does that [Laughter] even mean…
…and why do you care, I guess?
I was like, “What is the risk here? That somebody’s going to get into this account and find out my phone number, maybe my address?” [Laughter] We’re reminded of the fact, I mean, 30 years ago, they would put a phone book at the end of your driveway and it had 10,000 phone numbers…
…and addresses and names. Why is that confidential? Why is there a concern about that? There is none, but people sort of like, well, what happened was GDPR and security requirements entered into the picture for a good reason.
But the world goes to, I think, the lowest common denominator, and now we’re treating everything as if it’s your healthcare information or information that can be somehow used to steal your identity or whatever.
And it isn’t and there’s a lot of – I have a story [Laughter] about the State of Connecticut, if we, you know. It’s actually a good example of, believe it or not, being done correctly.
Yes, where I had to pay my taxes for an LLC that I have, and I went to the website and I tried to sign in, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Then I was like, oh, you just enter the EIN, the…
…tax ID number for your company…
…and you put in a number and you put in your bank account and you pay it. No sign there. I was like, “Wow, somebody had the courage there to not follow the sheep,” and what’s the risk? I mean, is there a risk somebody else is going [Laughter] to go pay my taxes? They can’t find anything out. The information about the company…
…number is public. So, I had to enter my bank account information, but that was unusual where you’re entering your bank account information, but there was no security, no “I’m going to send you, you know.”
Yes. Well, they’re smart in the sense where they’re streamlining the way – they’re streamlining how fast. They want to get paid, right?
So, they’re going to streamline it for you.
Very well. So, I mean, somebody had the courage to go ahead and do it in a way that makes sense.
Yes, and that’s good to see in that because I think you’re right. I think it takes a certain level of audacity, if you will, in today’s world to not follow the herd, right, to your earlier point.
And it is good to see, and I think that’s what we’re doing here. I think we’re, again, like I said, not to overstate the case, but everyone around us seems to be talking about AI. Don’t get me wrong. We, ourselves, are dabbling in AI in a number of different ways and likely will introduce AI into this new venture in some capacity later on. But I think people lose sight of why AI was even sought after, to begin with, right? It wasn’t sought after to take on a life of its own; it was like the rest of the technology or other technologies. I think it was sought after to make our lives better, and I think there’s some fear now out there around how AI is going to do that.
I think, admittedly, it’s kind of driven a wedge in between people and companies’ interactions, right? People are frustrated with the AI chatbots, to your earlier point. They don’t answer questions. In fact, I was on a call with someone earlier who was in the world of market research and statistics, and he gave me the exact percentage. I think it’s, I want to say, 36%, but don’t quote me, 36% of people actually interact with a chatbot for the sole purpose of trying to get a human being.
Which I thought was insightful, and I think that number’s going to increase over time as well.
Yes, I’ve heard that number; I’ve heard higher numbers than that.
I have as well.
It depends on the context, and what’s even equally important is not whether your intent is to speak with someone as much as you want the option to speak with somebody in case you run into trouble.
Some people are comfortable with chatting; I am.
But oftentimes, you run into trouble. I got a question that this thing’s not answering, and there’s no way it’s ever going to figure out the answer.
So, I need to speak with someone. And people are more willing to – and so that’s sort of the idea of pagealive is make it easy.
Make it easy for both sides, both for the visitor of a website and for the owner of the website, to simply talk to each other using a video chat. Now that’s a little bit, for right now, going the opposite direction of the mainstream, which is to try to automate things and try to get artificial intelligence and everything. But right now, they haven’t done it; they’re just not…
…there yet. Maybe eventually, they will be there, but for right now, people want to talk to somebody…
…and that’s what it does.
And I think it’s instinctual, right? I think, not to get philosophical, but I think we naturally, as human beings, crave human interaction.
That’s why even in the world of digital transformation, everything’s getting digital, we’re still going to physical trade shows, right?
We want that tangibility. We want to interact with people. It’s literally in our DNA, I think.
It is clearly Darwinian.
We enjoy being with people. It’s energizing and comforting to be in direct communication with people. When you’re on a video chat, it’s not the real thing, but it’s a long ways along the continuum toward it and better than nothing, right?
So, that’s what we’re trying to do. I do think that we’re just beginning to see the backlash against AI and nonhuman replacements.
Because I think it’s unsettling.
It is. How do you trust it?
When you get on the other end of a piece of communication or a communication and you don’t know [Laughter] whether you’re actually talking to a real person or not, it’s discomforting. It causes an uncertainty about whether you’re actually in that experience that you want to be.
Totally. I actually have a good example. I don’t know if I told you this story. I bought a car back in the fall, a new car for my wife because her lease was coming up and I said, “We’re done leasing, we’re going to actually buy a car,” and I wanted to try the Carvana experience. Are you familiar with them?
A little bit, yes.
And overall, this isn’t me mudslinging, overall, I had a pretty good experience, but it was admittedly nerve-racking and uneasy for me because there was no human touchpoint.
I interacted with one person, what I think was a person, in the beginning. It was a chatbot, then ultimately, I think got converted to a real human being, but this was the first time in my life where it’s a relatively high-level purchase, right? It’s a big investment. I never in my past had never interacted or made such a purchase without interacting with a person, right? With all the previous car purchases that I had made, I would go into a vehicle showroom and interact with a real human being, and I enjoy that, at least in my experience I had. So, for this experience, it was nerve-racking.
To Carvana, if they’re listening, I think you guys are great proponents for the offering because people, especially with high-touch, high-trust instances like buying a car, for most people, that’s a big investment, if not their biggest investment after their home in most cases. In my experience, and I think a lot of people would agree with me, they want to interact with a person. It would make them, in my case, it would have made me feel a lot better.
Right? From the minute I hit Enter and submitted everything, I was like, “Okay,” and I looked at my wife and I said, “Is this done? Is this car actually going to show up? They took the money out of my account, but I have no one to verify that everything’s running smoothly, so on and so forth.” So…
Yes, I use the example of cars, there’s another great illustration of why this kind of technology works. You picture yourself walking into a car showroom and you have a question about something about that car.
Right? There’s a salesman there and you say, “I have a question.” Are they going to say, “Go over and type your question into a box”?
Right, it’s [Laughter] ridiculous.
It makes no sense.
Right? I mean, there are situations where you really still should be speaking with a person because there’s an interaction that needs to happen. And if you’re trying [Laughter] to do that with a bot, it’s just very unnatural, and it’s, by the way, a lot of work.
It is. And -
Not always, but in some cases, yes.
Yes, and I think one of the biggest challenges that AI is going to face in general, but particularly in the online chatting interface, is that trust element because I – and I think some companies, a handful of companies recognize that trust is vital for the sales process. I don’t know how you establish trust with an AI, especially in a chat interface. I had no sense of trust in my vehicle purchase experience and there are other instances, right? There are other complicated, high-trust sales, whether you’re buying a new insurance policy, right? Imagine buying insurance without talking to someone. I don’t even know if that’s viable or not.
Financial services, investment services, right? Imagine parking – and that’s probably how some envision things going, but I can’t imagine parking any decent amount of money without interacting with someone to make myself feel secure about that interaction and transaction, right? So, I think that’s going to be one of the biggest challenges to AI, and I’m not convinced that AI will ever be able to establish trust.
Yes, you mentioned the sort of title of this session is “The Future is Human”…
…and I think there will be some really strong countervailing influences pulling people back toward more face-to-face communication.
I was listening to a radio show a couple of days ago where they had created an alternate radio show by using ChatGPT. At the end of it, it was a little unsettling…
…because you can definitely see that getting to the point where if you’re not in a face-to-face communication, you don’t know if it’s real. You don’t know if that person is real; you don’t know what it is. So, I think it’s going to pull people back toward face-to-face, in-person…
I think you’re right.
As that relates to pagealive, it’ll be important that we make sure that people know this is a real person, you’re talking to a person. You can see situations where the interaction is about a complicated sale, something where you have lots of instances, lots of ways you can configure it, lots of different colors or whatever, and these pieces interact with each other. Could you do that with artificial intelligence? Probably but I think it’s preferable, and I think there are plenty of companies out there that will want their customers to feel that they’re cared for and feel that they are getting a premium, superior…
…user experience when they have an interaction with that company. I think that’s how it’s going to separate out and segment.
I agree, and I think there are benefits to both parties with pagealive, right? There are benefits to the website owner, the business, and there’s also benefits, there are obvious benefits to the customers. But to the business owner, I think it’s worth just talking about that for a second or for a few minutes in the sense where we spoke earlier, we mentioned earlier that there is a detriment to over-automating for the sake of cost savings, right? You’re, frankly, pushing people away, frustrating people, often enough potentially losing business because of it, right? So, the obvious benefit for a business owner or website owner that has pagealive is they’re engaging with that client. Like you said or and I think you’ve mentioned, if you have that visitor on your website and they want to talk to someone, why wouldn’t you want to speak with them, right? It’s almost like it’s nerve-racking to me when I interact with, and I’ve had more experiences than I’d like to admit and share with trying to get someone from a business, and usually, it is a telecom or utility provider, and they don’t want to talk to me, right? Often enough, that pushes me right the other way,
One of the benefits we talk about companies that spent many, many months and lots of money trying to get somebody onto their website, right, or to a landing page.
Yes, there’s a lot of conversation about traffic.
If you spent all that time and money getting them there, don’t you want to talk to them?
Are you going to ask them to go type a question [Laughter] into a box?
I think the answer is no, but in most cases, your goal is to convert that person to a customer, and your best way of doing that is to engage with them and interact with them.
That’s what most people want. Or give them that option, right, and make it very clear that they have that option. They’re much more – somebody has a great example. If you went to a supermarket and there’s a self-checkout option person, you’re probably not going to go into the self-checkout option unless you know there’s a person in case you run into trouble.
If you don’t see that person, it was like, “Ah, I don’t know.”
Totally. In my experience, I won’t even go to the self-checkout. The only time I’ve gone to self-checkout is when there’s someone in that corral, but I’ve only gone to self-checkout when the regular checkout line is backed up, right? Otherwise, I want that human interaction.
Why wouldn’t I want someone to facilitate that sale for me, right? Again, I think most people naturally long for that, right? They want that; they want that experience.
I want to pivot you a little bit. So, we spoke a little bit about pagealive in Civicom. pagealive is a new offering and service of Civicom. Can you talk a little bit about Civicom? Because most people listening probably haven’t come across us. Or if they have, maybe they don’t know our full story or all of the other plethora of offerings that we offer. Do you mind chatting in a little bit or…
Yes, sure. I mean, it’s a…
…tell me a little bit about that?
It’s a long story, started 23 years ago. We had an idea to do a telecom service that was very unique and fun and offered a very significant convenience, but it ran into a little bit of a hitch along the commercial path, and it failed and so we had to figure something else out. So, we got into conference calling, and sort of back in the day, we were one of the pioneers in that space.
One thing led to another, and we sort of followed customers’ requests into a new business led us to voice to CRM, which led us to marketing research services. At some point along the way, we got into a business that pulled us into WebRTC. WebRTC is a very exciting new technology that’s embedded into Zoom and Google Meet. Our Head of Technology said, “Dave, it’s really exciting [Laughter] because it makes all kinds of things possible that really weren’t possible until this technology was out.” It’s only about five years ago…
…and Zoom really propelled it, but it was bubbling in the background for many years.
So, as we started to brainstorm what are the opportunities that we could pursue, WebRTC was sort of in the background and I guess I’ll sort of tell this, [Laughter] let’s see if I could tell a story shortly.
So, in the middle of very early in COVID, both of my parents passed away.
During that period of time, they actually moved nursing homes and rooms within the nursing homes a couple of times, and I was the one that moved their internet provider and their phone service and their television service. That was the connections to the world and it had to be moved. We sort of shared responsibility and I took those on, and I spent [Laughter] a lot of time on chat websites and then phone trees with cable providers, telephone providers, television…
…those cable providers, and this WebRTC capability was in the back of my mind and I said, “No, this is not the way it should be.” The WebRTC technology is perfect for what this really should be.
So, we started down that path of doing a couple of things with WebRTC. I won’t mention the other ones; it’s too much detail, but there are now five technologies that we’re pursuing that involve either artificial intelligence or WebRTC or some combination. I don’t mean to contrast; there are times when…
No, no, yes.
…artificial intelligence is a great tool for making things more efficient, taking the labor out of things that are tedious…
…and people don’t really want to do. It’s a very big value-add in some situations.
It doesn’t mean there aren’t some scary things in the offing from artificial intelligence. I have some of those fears, like anyone, about where that could take us…
…and I think we need to be vigilant about it.
I sort of actually support a backlash, people saying, “We don’t want that taking over our world, and we don’t want that taking over our lives,” and you’re starting to see that. You see…
You see ads, job ads that focus on hiring humans and keeping people employed, keeping people together, keeping…
…community together, and I think that’s what we’re going to see. That’s sort of the beginning of a long-term trend.
Yes, I agree, and I think we’re starting to see it. Funny enough, our most recent client is in an AI space. I won’t name them for the sake of their privacy, but they’re an AI content creation company. So, they provide value by creating content via generative AI. But even an AI company, an AI-focused company, chose to use pagealive for their customer interaction and experience, and I think that speaks volumes because they see the value in the human interaction, right? Whether it’s from customer support or boosting conversion rates, like you mentioned. So, I think that’s a great testimony, to your point.
Well, thank you, Dave. Is there anything else you want to add? [Laughter]
I think that’s it for now.
All right, fair enough. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show and doing the inaugural first episode with us.
Stay tuned. Going forward, you’re going to hear more about pagealive, you’re going to hear more about Civicom and other technologies that are buzzing and growing, and how digital transformation is affecting all of us. So, stay tuned, and we’ll see you guys on the next one.
Thank you, Dave.
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