End of the line?

The biggest threat to jobs might not be physical robots, but intelligent software agents that can understand our questions and speak to us, integrating seamlessly with all the other programs we use at home and at work. And call centres are particularly at risk.
Last week we learned that British retail giant Marks & Spencer is moving 100 switchboard staff to other roles because chatbots are taking over their duties.
“All calls to 640 M&S stores and contact centres now handled via Twilio-powered technology,” boasted the California-based tech company operating the new system.
M&S is now using Twilio’s speech recognition software and Google’s Dialogflow artificial intelligence (AI) tool to transcribe customers’ verbal requests and understand their intent. Then the call is routed to the appropriate department or shop.
The system could handle about 12 million queries a year, Twilio says.
With the Bank of England’s chief economist warning that the UK requires a skills revolution to avoid AI leaving vast swathes of people “technologically unemployed”, it seems fair to question how disruptive these systems may be.
That call centre workers may be particularly at risk from AI is something that has been discussed for many years.
But now the shift actually seems to be happening, says Brian Manusama, an analyst at market research firm Gartner.
“The number one use case for applying AI is in this call centre and customer service space,” he explains.
“At the end of 2017 about 70% of all use cases in AI were related to customer service and call centres.”
Several million people are employed in call centre roles in the US and UK and hundreds of thousands more rely on such work in countries like India and the Philippines. Unless these people quickly learn new skills, they could soon be out of work.
“Countries like India may have a huge problem with increasing unemployment,” says Mr Manusama.
But chief executive of IPsoft, Chetan Dube, told me he was bullish about the prospect when discussing his company’s widely used digital assistant Amelia – billed as “the most human AI”. It can understand natural language – not just set commands – and can discern meaning from the context of a conversation.
“Has that not always been the case?” he asks. “Jobs have always been displaced by technology.”

Source: BBC

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