The machines rose, but now start-ups add a human touch

It's unfashionable to admit this in the age of Expedia, Priceline and other do-it-yourself online tools, but here it is: I miss travel agents.

The Internet took off as a way to book travel because the human intermediaries were always a bit suspect - their expertise questionable, their methods opaque and their allegiances unclear. And, at first, the machines seemed to improve everything. For uncomplicated trips, booking online is now much easier than in the past. Because we've replaced agents with computers whose sole purpose is to ferret out the best deal - and for lots of other reasons - airfares have plummeted over the last three decades.

Yet as you suffer through another holiday travel season, you might pause to consider how much we've really gained - and lost - in ditching human agents for machines.

And you might welcome an emerging trend on the Internet: start-ups that are trying to put human agents, whether in travel, home services or shopping, back at the centre of how we make decisions.

"A lot of companies pushed hard on the idea that technology will solve every problem, and that we shouldn't use humans," said Mr Paul English, the co-founder of a new online company called Lola Travel. "We think humans add value, so we're trying to design technology to facilitate the human-to-human connection."

HUMANS STILL VALUABLE

We think humans add value, so we're trying to design technology to facilitate the human-to-human connection.

MR PAUL ENGLISH, co-founder of online company Lola Travel

Lola, which is currently open only in a limited pre-release version, has an unusual interface: When you're looking to book a trip, you just send a text. Your request can be vague - "Hey, my family is thinking about going to Europe next summer" - because on the other end sits a human.

The agent knows your general travel preferences and has access to many of the same tools you'd use to book a trip. But the agent also has something extra - experience and data to help make decisions about the kind of trip you should take.

Mr English isn't allergic to tech. He co-founded and served as the chief technology officer of Kayak, the booking site acquired by Priceline in 2012 for nearly US$2 billion (about S$2.8 billion).

But Mr English often manned the customer-service phone line at Kayak, and would get calls from people who had grown frustrated with online booking.

"I tried to create the best travel website on the market," he said. "But as good as we thought our tech was, there were many times when I thought I did a better job for people on the phone than our site could do."

You've most likely experienced the headaches Mr English is talking about. Think back to the last time you booked anything beyond a routine trip online. There's a good chance you spent a lot more time and energy than you would have with a human.

Sure, the Internet has obligingly stepped in to help; there are review sites, travel blogs, discussion forums and the hordes on social media to answer every possible travel question. But these resources only exacerbate the problem. They often turn what should be a fun activity into an hours-long research project.

"At one time the Internet scared travel agents because our customers had access to all of this information and they didn't need us," said Mr Joe McClure, the president of Montrose Travel, a large travel agency based in Northern California.

That fear was justified: There are now about half the number of travel agents working in the United States as there were in 2000, and the number is expected to continue declining, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. Still, Mr McClure said his business has lately been thriving.

"What's happened is information overload," he said. "There is so much information out there that people research themselves into a circle and they get confused. And then they call one of my agents and say, 'Would you just help me out?'"

It's not just in travel that we're all being asked to shoulder more work. The Internet's great magic is what a business school professor would call "disintermediation". By surfacing all of the world's information and letting each of us act on it, computers help us bypass the expensive human brokers and service people who once sat in between consumers and suppliers.

Now, rather than consult an insurance agent, you simply search online. You never go into a bank - you just use the tireless automated teller machine - and at the supermarket, there are those self-checkout machines. You can buy stocks without a broker, you can publish a book without a publisher and you can sell a house without an agent. Slowly but surely, the robots seem to be replacing all the middlemen and turning the world into a self-serve society.

An economist would praise the great disintermediation for its efficiency. As a customer, you may have a different reaction: Look at all the work you're now being asked to do. Was it really wise to get rid of all those human helpers?

In many cases, yes, but there remain vast realms of commerce in which guidance from a human expert works much better than a machine. Other than travel, consider the process of finding a handyman or plumber. The Internet has given us a wealth of data about these services. You could spend all day on Craigslist, Yelp or Angie's List finding the best person for your job, which is precisely the problem.

"It's going to be a long time until a computer can replace the estimating power of an experienced handyman," said Mr Doug Ludlow, the founder of Happy Home, a one-year-old start-up that uses human experts to find the right person for your job.

The company, which operates in the San Francisco Bay Area but plans to expand nationally, has contracts with a network of trusted service professionals in your area. To get some work done, you simply text your Happy Home manager with a description of the problem and maybe a few pictures.

"A quick glance from our handyman gives us an idea of who to send to your job, and what it will cost," Mr Ludlow said. The company handles payment processing, scheduling and any complaints if something goes wrong.

I recently used Happy Home to get a few home theatre cables concealed in a wall. The experience was liberating - I found a handyman and a drywall specialist to do my job with little more than a few texts.

It isn't feasible to get humans involved in all of our purchases. Humans are costly and they're limited in capacity. The great advantage of computers is that they "scale" - software can serve ever more customers for ever-lower prices.

But one of the ironies of the digital revolution is that it has also helped human expertise scale. Thanks to texting, human customer-service agents can now serve multiple customers at a time. They can also access reams of data about your preferences, allowing them to quickly find answers for your questions.

As a result, for certain purchases, the cost of adding human expertise can be a trivial part of the overall transaction.

Happy Home takes a cut of each service it sets up, but because it can squeeze out certain efficiencies from operating a network of service professionals, its prices match what you'd find looking for a handyman on your own. That's true of human travel agencies, too - the commissions on travel are so good that Lola can afford to throw in human expertise.

The rise of computers is often portrayed as a great threat to all of our jobs. But these services sketch out a more optimistic scenario: That humans and machines will work together, and we, as customers, will be allowed, once more, to lazily beg for help.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'The machines rose, but now start-ups add a human touch'. Print Edition | Subscribe