Bot fever has taken over the world: just this week Facebook and Microsoft have gone head-to-head with new “chatbots” – digital contacts on your phone whom you can text if you want something done.
Take the Springbot in Facebook Messenger – it’s a shopping concierge bot that will tailor shopping options to your price range.
Tell it you’re looking for black work shoes under £100, and lo and behold, it texts you five pairs it thinks you may like. It won’t bother pushing shoes that are outside your price range, and remembers your tastes for next time.
Plus you don’t have to feel bad about making it rush back and forth from the stock room – just say yes or no, and it brings up a plethora of new options. Sure, it may have some hiccups to begin with, particularly with understanding the nuances of human language, but ultimately it will learn and even predict exactly what you need.
Customer service loses the human touch
This is what a world of robot customer service would look like – precise, efficient, brisk.
There’s no doubt that chatbots and their real-world counterparts, robots, will kill the customer service industry. They’re cheaper, can work any and all times of the day and can be trained up instantly. You can also replicate them cheaply, without added costs.
The signs are clear: in November last year, Bank of America Merrill Lynch said that 45pc of manufacturing jobs would be automated within a decade, up from 10pc today.
According to a highly cited study by Oxford University and Deloitte, 35per cent of current jobs in the UK alone are at risk from automation.
For customer services occupations, there is a 91pc likelihood of automation, putting it in the top 50 jobs most likely to be lost. For call and contact centre workers, the likelihood is 75 per cent.
Together, these industries employ roughly 376,000 people in the UK.
We’re already starting to see examples of robotic customer service agents pop up in our daily lives, as we become more comfortable with machines becoming our primary point of contact with businesses.
When I log into my bank’s website, I now get a popup chat window where I can ask for help.
Banks have announced that they are trialling AI chatbots to respond to these queries – RBS, for instance, will deploy a virtual assistant called Luvo to deal with day-to-day customer problems from lost or stolen bank cards to forgotten pin numbers.
Although Luvo has been built to sound human-like, he’s far more helpful because he can instantly access the entirety of the existing customer service database to pull up an answer, and learn from previous enquiries.
Just this week, American fast food chain Taco Bell announced the TacoBot, which you can text via the Slack messaging app.
You can use the bot to order food for yourself or a group of friends or co-workers, ask for recommendations and pay for it through Slack. As an executive said at the launch: “TacoBot is the next best thing to having your own Taco Bell butler – and who wouldn’t want that?”
You can order Domino’s pizza through Amazon’s AI assistant Echo (which hasn’t made its way to the UK yet), and multinationals like Unilever and BMW use a simple Q&A bot that can answer any question a customer services employee would.
The Henn-na hotel, which opened in Nagasaki, Japan last summer, is the world’s first hotel to be fully staffed by robots – from check-in staff, to porters and the concierge.
So yes – as large retailers begin to employ armies of chatbots and real bots to answer millions of queries ranging from the silly to the convoluted, customer service will lose its human touch.
I say thank god for that. Studies claim that call centre employees are the “most unhappy and isolated group of UK office workers.”
In fact, a 2013 survey found that these employees experienced the poorest interpersonal relationships compared to other professions and workplaces. They also found that call centre workers were twice as likely as other groups to report breakdowns in home relationships as a result of workplace problems.
Many who face the daily drudgery of answering the same queries such as “my email has locked me out,” over and over could find that their jobs evolve to be more stimulating, with only the most repetitive and basic tasks outsourced to bots.
From a customer’s point of view, call centre phone calls often turn into extended and sometimes frustrating conversations, particularly if you get cut off and have to call back and tell someone else your issue all over again.
Bots could assist in providing context and data to human employees, making the experience far smoother for customers.
Despite the hysteria about robots taking our jobs, history has shown that although automation has replaced humans in certain job types like manufacturing, it hasn’t dented overall unemployment levels.
In other words, when technology renders our roles obsolete, we apply our talents in fresh ways and new jobs are born.
Look at Facebook’s artificially intelligent smartphone assistant ‘M’. The bot, which sits within the Messenger app, can complete tasks for you.
For instance, it can purchase items, deliver gifts on your behalf, book restaurants, and make travel arrangements. But the key is that it is powered by a team of AI and real people.
The AI is trained and supervised by humans, who take on the more complex queries, while the bot handles simple ones.
Retailers and call centres will likely employ a similar combination of bots and humans who can respond to a wider range of customer queries quickly, intelligently and with empathy.
Beyond changing job descriptions, there will be more need for specialist salespeople, engineers and designers who build and repair bots, and perhaps completely new jobs – like the last decade’s app developer – that don’t even exist today.
And finally, if you want to feel smug, just think of the three restaurants in China that had to fire all their robot staff due to incompetence last week – apparently they were clumsy and kept breaking down.
While bots may be better than us at certain tasks, they’re going to have to live up to their employers’ unrealistic expectations just like the rest of us.
Credit: The Sunday Telegraph