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The human factor

As the sort of person who treated the introduction of the CD with suspicion, I am not best qualified to give my opinion on AI.

Nevertheless, please permit me a word of caution on this subject…


For anyone young enough not to remember the dawn of the internet age at the millennium, let me tell you there was a craze in procurement offices for 'internet auctions’. Hailed as a buyer’s panacea, procurement officers of metal consuming companies (engineers, alloy & steel makers, glass makers, catalyst makers, smelters) rubbed their hands at the thought of no longer needing to answer the phone. All that would be needed from now on was to issue an auction notice.

The idea looked marvellous. What could be easier, cleaner, less open to corruption and error, and more accountable, than an online auction?

All merchants like myself could do, was go along with it. We had no alternative. Customers of long standing simply dictated that unless we complied, we would no longer be welcome to participate in their company’s success. The alternatives were acceptance or despatch into outer darkness.


For a while, invitations to attend ethereal auctions proliferated. Commencement times and durations were flagged, specifications and delivery times advertised. The aim was that telephone discussions could be summarily replaced by auction rubric.

Of course we gave it a go. We had young people at the office who appeared to be able to read the small print and I felt I was being a stick-in-the-mud if I did not at least try.

And yet it was not long before our failure to win any business via auction was 100%.  Our star, it seemed (however small) had gone extinct.


So we were surprised when out of the blue a buyer we’d known for a while called after the end of one of the dutch auction bidding wars we’d so recently lost.

At the time I’d rubbed my head, perplexed as to how our competitors could have offered metal at those prices, at those delivery terms – and with that chemistry. I’d not chased, because I couldn't. We’d stood aside. It was not that I didn't want to compete (every business – every ‘metals business’ must) but our corporate problem was that our understanding of metal merchanting did not match the concept of an internet auction. It was things like the omission in the blurbs of subtle things such 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...Some of the very things that to my mind define a metal merchant.


Our buyer-friend told us how the company who'd won the auction had duly delivered the chemistry but, alas, not the form. They'd complied with the auction details but, seeing an omission, used it to win the business. They had deliberately decided not to take into account one or more of the many variables just mentioned. The buyer might not have to worry about price, but he now had panic attacks about what would be delivered at the factory gate.


The computer model had been unable to replicate the discussions, nuances, implications, or trust, gained from a human interaction.


As anyone who has read anything from my pen (and, yes, it is often a pen), I am distrustful of technology when the intent is to replace personal relationships – in this case, it was the human contact between buyers and sellers.


I'm not now going to give a list of AI doubts. However, I can say that when I visit a website and an icon flashes up ‘Want to chat?’ (which is shallow cover for AI) I do not feel the least bit enticed or trustful of the mechanism. What I do feel is that I can see before me the face of the bright spark who thought that 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 earthbound aim, as a metals business, has simply been to be a decent and reliable purveyor of metals. We try to do this by myriad means, but mostly 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 progress in the wrong place. I do not object to tech in gas turbine engines or smartphones, but I do not trust of its interference specifically in our metals trade.


Call me old fashioned?

You’re welcome.

By Anthony Lipmann

A version of this article was published by on 25th Jan 2024



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