Is that speaker a human or a machine? ASTA says you shouldn't have to guess

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Photo Credit: Pranch/Shutterstock

The next time you find yourself exchanging words with some travel-site entity, ASTA thinks you should know with certainty whether you're talking to a human being or a machine powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

"I firmly believe that when you're talking to a piece of software, you should know that it's a piece of software, and I don't think that's a whole lot to ask," said Zane Kerby, ASTA's president and CEO.

As technologies that employ AI become increasingly common in the form of voice assistants, chatbots and more, ASTA is placing a heightened focus on getting involved with shaping potential rules and regulations surrounding AI in human interfaces.

Though the concept of AI has been around for years, the technology has only recently progressed to the point where it is having an impact on consumers' lives on a regular basis, Kerby said.

Kerby is pushing for clear identifiers so that consumers know when they are interacting with a computer as opposed to with a human, especially when it comes to travel agents.

ASTA's examination of AI is still in its early stages, according to Eben Peck, executive vice president for advocacy. The Society has engaged in some discussions on Capitol Hill.

"Based on initial conversations, I believe when people up there think about AI, they're thinking about stuff like self-driving cars and self-driving trucks," Peck said. "An initial early objective is to get travel into this conversation, and that's going to be what we try to do at the start."

At the moment, the technology is still new, and "there's not a whole lot on the books" from a regulatory perspective, Peck said. There is some movement on the subject, with an AI Caucus now established in Congress and a bill introduced in December that would create a federal advisory committee on AI.

"The regulations have got to catch up to where the market is," Kerby said. "Because of the money being poured in, the market is moving much faster. It happens with most technologies. The market is going to move a lot faster than the regulations and even legislation."

ASTA's goal is to keep the travel industry at the top of regulators' minds. For example, Peck said, the Society will push for AI that is used to sell travel to meet the same standards that apply to agents. One issue in particular is the number of disclosures agents have to make when selling airline tickets.

If a travel agent has to do it, the AI should too, he said. "Otherwise it's going to be an uneven playing field."

The Society also acknowledges that some forms of AI will be very valuable to travel agents from a business perspective.

Mark Meader, ASTA's senior vice president for industry affairs, said, "There is opportunity for agencies to look at [AI technology] so it can benefit them with the more simple and mundane tasks that they do today."

Already, larger and more corporate-focused agencies have started using AI technology, and Meader predicted it will become more affordable and common for smaller agencies in the near future.

Casto Travel in San Jose, Calif., currently uses an AI-powered chatbot in its app for corporate travelers. When the bot doesn't know an answer, a human agent steps in. President and CEO Marc Casto said the chatbot does not specifically identify itself to users in the app, but clients are told the app utilizes a bot and how it works.

"We do not hide the fact from our clients as to what it is; they understand that it's a chatbot," Casto said. "We also want to ensure that there's a quality of service that we can guarantee behind it, and that's why we have people monitoring the conversations."

Casto, who is also co-chairing a new technology-focused ASTA task force, said the group will certainly take Kerby's concerns into consideration.

At the moment, most technologies using bots in the travel space don't hide the fact that they are bots, according to John Ische, president of Trisept Solutions. Trisept uses AI for a search function in its Xcelerator product and has considered using both agent- and consumer-facing bots.

Ische was also on ASTA's AI panel.

"In today's world, I think most people, when they're engaged with a chat, I think they know that they're talking to a chatbot, not talking to a person," he said. "I don't think there are too many times where it's disguised."

But going forward, Ische said, it will likely get more difficult to detect whether a chatbot or a person is talking. That raises a question of liability, especially for travel companies, and it's something for the industry to consider.

"The liability is the same whether you're talking to a person or talking to the chatbot," Ische said. "Ultimately, if the chatbot gives the customer some bad information, bad advice, the company whose chatbot did that is still on the hook for it."

Kerby said ASTA's goal is to have a hand in helping shape future regulations to protect the agency community.

"We want to be there as the rules of the road are being formulated," Kerby said. "We want to make sure that we're protecting ASTA members and the investment they've made in their knowledge base and in their local supplier contacts and networks."

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