This article was written by Anthony Lipmann. All views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.
As someone who treated the introduction of the CD with suspicion, I am probably not the best person to trouble you with my opinions on AI. As I may have said before, if it had been up to me, we might not have progressed beyond the wheel.
Permit me then please, as a contrarian, a word of caution as to AI's early adoption by the metal trade…
For anyone young enough not to remember the dawn of the internet age around the millennium, I need to remind you of the craze for the ‘internet auction’.
Hailed as the buyer’s panacea, the idea was that the procurement division of large metal consuming companies (engineers, alloy & steel makers, glass makers, catalyst makers, smelters) would henceforth not need to enter discussions with suppliers but merely issue them with auction dates.
In this new era, with the conjuror’s wand as implement of choice, the idea appeared marvellous. What could be - it was advanced - easier, cleaner, less open to corruption and error, and more accountable, than an online auction? Who were we (grasping metal people) to demur? We did not and could not…
Indeed, it was not long before some of our customers of long years standing dictated that unless compliance was forthcoming, we would no longer be welcome to participate in their company’s success. At the time it appeared the alternatives were either of acceptance, or despatch into outer darkness.
For a while, auction dates plummeted from the ether with thudding regularity. Commencement times and auction duration were flagged, specifications and delivery times advertised. Put it another way - almost everything that in the past might have been captured in a telephone conversation was now to be encapsulated in auction rubric.
Even as a self-confessed Luddite, I was prepared to give it a go. We had young people in the office who appeared to be able to read the small print. And yet it was not long before our failure rate to win any business via auction was 100%. Our star, it seemed (however small) had faded and would be soon extinct.
But one day a human buyer we’d known for a while called after the end of one of the bidding fests we’d so recently lost. At the time we’d rubbed our heads, perplexed as to how our competitors could have offered metal at those prices, delivery terms – and with that chemistry - without going bust. We’d not chased, because we could not. We’d stood aside. It was not that we did not want to compete (every business – every ‘metals business’ must work for it) but our problem was that our understanding of metal merchanting was not encompassed by the concept of an internet auction. For example – the omission in the blurbs of such subtle things as the appearance of goods, details of packing, argon seals, pre-emptive advice about handling, discussions about fitness for purpose, effect of certain trace elements on product, compliance with the strictures for delivery, observation of issues to do with dual use or dangerous goods, forecasts of logistical difficulties beyond the control of either buyer or seller…Need I continue?
Our buyer-friend said that the party who had won the auction had duly delivered the chemistry advertised but, alas, not the form. They had complied with the mechanical details of the auction but seen an omission in the detail and used it to win the business. They had deliberately decided not to take into account one or more of the many uncertainties just mentioned above. In other words, the people who had won the auction had complied with the rules, and yet had still not made a compliant delivery. It was beginning to dawn on the buyer that while he might not have to worry about price, he now had to worry much, much more about what would be delivered to the factory gate.
Quite simply, the computer model, had been unable to replicate the discussions, nuances, implications, or trust, to be gained from a human interaction.
As anyone who has read anything emitted from my pen (and, yes, it is often a pen), I am deeply distrustful of technology in any incarnation that appears to supersede the personal relationship – in this case, between buyers and sellers.
Now you might expect me to give a list of my AI doubts – but all I can say is that when I visit a website and the flashy icon comes up ‘Want to chat?’, which is shallow cover for AI, I do not feel the least bit of inclination to do so, or trust in the mechanism. What I do feel is that I can see before me the face of the bright spark who thought letting go of a human and employing a chatbot was a great idea. It is certainly a goal that may have saved the entity cost – but not necessarily taken account of the effect on security and quality of supply.
Our rather modest aim, as a metals business, has simply been to be a good purveyor of metals. We try to do this by myriad means, but mainly by trying to be available and accountable at the human/personal level. We still think – against all the odds – that this approach might have some value when set against the mirage of new certainties promised by AI technology.
For me, AI, is essentially progress in the wrong place. I do not object to tech in the gas turbine engine or my smartphone, but remain deeply distrustful of its interference specifically in our metals trade.
Call me old fashioned? You’re welcome.