Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

There was an article on Page 1 of last Wednesday's New York Times about "autonomous weapons," missiles and drones that, once launched, use artificial intelligence to choose targets without human oversight. The story quoted a number of concerned scientists and even Pentagon weapons specialists who questioned whether it was morally appropriate or wise to launch self-governing armaments. 

The day before the article appeared, the travel research company Phocuswright opened its annual conference, held this year in Los Angeles, with its Travel Innovation Summit. The day-long competition pitted 32 prescreened presenters from around the world to pitch travel-tech products to an audience of 1,500 peers, travel executives, investors, media, a panel of judges and even an "American Idol"-style "Critics Circle" who provided immediate reaction and feedback. (Phocuswright, like Travel Weekly, is owned by Northstar Travel Media.)

At this year's summit, several subdivisions of automation emerged as areas that multiple companies were tackling:

• A handful of presenters, perhaps encouraged by the wide usage of mobile technology, had components focused on the booking of local attractions, a category once thought to be particularly challenging because attraction-providers typically use unsophisticated and nonstandardized booking technologies and are a highly fragmented group.

• There seemed to be a record number of products that were designed specifically to help travel agents.

• It also appeared that there was an unusually high percentage of products designed for business-to-business or business-to-business-to-consumer purposes; there were very few ambitious, purely consumer plays.

• Big Data figured prominently, particularly for trip-planning purposes. Several of the innovators, who presented for seven minutes each, explained how they use Big Data to assist in automated travel planning.

• An emerging trend centered on products that promised to contextualize semantic phrases to return trip options that travelers would be likely to book.

Automation has certainly been a boon to the travel industry, and unlike the resistance to robotic weaponry, I don't think anyone has moral qualms about automating inventory searches, booking or even trip planning.

I liked the apps that promised to help me save money, avoid unpleasant experiences and reduce the "friction" of travel that wastes my time.

But much of the trip-planning software had no appeal to me. While I would stop well short of calling the quest for fully automated travel planning "dangerous," I would point out that it is not without some risk.

And that threat, in my view, is to some of the most pleasurable aspects of leisure travel: anticipation, serendipity and flexibility.

Big Data is sorted, analyzed, parsed and run through complex algorithms in the hope that perfect options are presented, tailor-made to an individual traveler's preferences. "We know [a traveler's] DNA," one presenter boasted.

As I listened to speakers say how they had the technological "secret sauce" -- a phrase repeated frequently -- to suss out exactly what travelers want, it occurred to me that my rising irritability was caused by the notion that software can figure out who I am and can predict what I would like to do.

My sense of individuality was affronted. There may not be any specific thing that I have done in my life that absolutely no one else hasn't also done, but I like to think my collective experience is unique. (The irony is not lost on me, by the way, that perhaps my most commonly shared trait is that I like to think that I'm not like everybody else.)

Still, there are reasons to believe that while these developers are following technology trends, they might be running contrary to travel trends.

As the ability to reserve local activities in advance expands, travelers' days can become filled with prebooked activities. But escorted tour operators discovered a few years ago that passengers want flexibility, not full schedules. They want free time to break out and explore on their own.

Similarly, cruise lines are beginning to offer shore excursions that let people sleep in. The industry is figuring out that when people go on vacation, they often want less pre-planned, prebooked structure, not more.

The Big Data folks might respond by saying that if you want free time, that will be revealed in your past preferences and reflected in options presented to you. But that's not really what I saw.

Most data-driven apps I was hearing about were, first and foremost, sales tools. They presented things travelers could buy to fill up their mornings, days and nights. One presenter pointed out that 58% of money spent on a vacation is spent locally, after a traveler arrives, on items that were not prebooked. It seemed to be understood by these developers that there's less money to be made if one builds in time for aimless wandering and naps.

I could not help comparing the automated travel decision process attempting to zero in what it believes I want with the human travel counselor who can not only review my history and preferences but who has listened to my feedback when I return from a trip.

Although it seems I cannot buy a cup of coffee without receiving a follow-up email linked to a customer satisfaction survey, these surveys offer me limited response choices, and as a result, what I fear is missing in data-driven decisions is the texture of my reaction to experiences. (There's one way I know I'm very different from the people whose feedback they're gathering: I don't fill out electronic customer satisfaction surveys.)

The New York Times article about weaponry that makes decisions independent of human input reported that although most projectiles guided by artificial intelligence do what they're supposed to, in one instance a missile slammed into an Indian freighter.

A drone travel agent might deliver a satisfactory experience for a majority of people, but for the time being, I'm not convinced it's for me. I don't want my vacation to end up as collateral damage to trip-planning technology.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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