Will artificial intelligence replace call centers? Maybe.

You might not admit it but at the back of your mind, is a question begging for an answer: Will artificial intelligence soon replace call center agents? Instead of dismissing the question as baseless, and saying, “Impossible! No robot could possibly understand empathy as much as we do!”, I want you to keep an open mind throughout this article.

Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Call Center Agents?

When the question about artificial intelligence replacing human call center agents pops up, there are two sides of the coin:

  1. The one side saying, “No it can’t possibly happen.”
  2. The other saying, “We’re screwed!”

Let’s hear out both arguments:

The “no it can’t possibly happen” theory

The idea is that no creature on earth (natural or artificial) could possibly understand humans other than humans themselves. In the 4 years I’ve worked in the call center industry, I’ve never heard a customer say, “I want to talk to a robot.”

When customers are pissed, they say, “I want to talk to a supervisor.”When they can’t understand an agent’s accent, they say, “I want to talk to someone who can speak English!” And when they think the agent sounds off, they ask, “Are you a robot?”

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So it must be safe to assume that human call center agents are irreplaceable and always will be. After all, the robotic voice of the answering system saying, “Press 1, press 2, press 3,” is probably every customer’s pet peeves.

The “we’re screwed” theory

But what seemed to be the confident theory of “humans as irreplaceable workers in the call center industry” was shaken six months ago, when Google Duplex, (Google’s currently developed AI) was introduced to the public.

During Google’s presentation, two recordings were played. On both recordings, AI was the caller—the first call to book for a haircut appointment, and the second, a table reservation.

Watch the video and see for yourself

I guess no one would argue that the AI in both calls sounded like legit humans. Could this be the first signal of death of the industry that puts food to millions of Filipino tables?

If so, not only would the call center industry plummet. It would bring along with it other industries that receive huge revenues from call center agents (food chains for example). The economy would take a huge hit which would result to thousands, (maybe millions) of jobless Filipinos. Sounds alarming.

But it was only an appointment setting. What about the more complex tasks?

True, in the presentation, we didn’t hear the AI playing call center agent and dealing with a hysterical customer. However, understand that before an invention makes it big, it has to start small.

The fact that Google was able to create an AI that sounds like real human, able to understand the nuances, and navigate with ease through varied conditions, is already an astounding accomplishment.

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that in the next 5-10 years, AI would still lack that missing ingredient— that human touch, that ability to understand or at least simulate empathy. Let’s say, that’s the case. What would happen then?

I’m afraid it still doesn’t paint a nice enough future. Human intervention would still be needed, yes. But only on special cases when AIs couldn’t solve the problem. Straightforward tasks (like booking an appointment, processing refunds, transferring calls, taking orders, etc.) would probably be taken over by AI. That’s still a big slice of the pie.

The better question you should be asking yourself then is NOT, “Is Google really capable of such technology?”, but should be, “How long before the technology starts firing people from their jobs?”

A hard question to ask, let alone answer. However, being brutally honest with ourselves right here and now, and facing the issue head-on seems to be the most logical thing to do.

So what should you do?

Experts estimate that the big change would likely happen within the next 5-10 years. Some even predict it happening as early as 2020. As the ones who are going to feel its impact the most, what are you gonna do about it?

Wishing and praying is all well and good. Too bad it isn’t enough. How about this?

Upgrade your skills.

There’s no way of sugarcoating this. You need to learn a new set of skills. Skills that no robot could replicate (for now).

Sure, it’s sounds painful. Learning a new skill requires time and effort— commodities that call center agents rarely ever have. It’s even more unbearable if you’ve dedicated your life to the industry for almost a decade, only to hear the possibility of it crumbling to pieces one day.

But here’s a fact you can’t twist: You don’t have a choice.

It’s either you go on pretending AI doesn’t exist or take responsibility while time is on your side. Besides, whether the prediction is going to happen or not, you’re still going to gain new skills.

“Are you saying I should go back to school and get a diploma?”

Generally, no. Unless you’re taking a course like medicine and law which require a degree, there are definitely loads of skills you can learn without formal education. A technology might fire you from your job one day, but not without bringing new jobs (that weren’t there before) into life.

(In my next post, I’ll write about jobs and skills that you might be interested in learning. So stay tuned.)

Will the government be of any help?

According to this ABS-CBN news, Rey Untal, president of the IT and Business Process Outsourcing Association of the Philippines said,

BPO companies are working with government to help call center agents upgrade their skills to higher value industries such as healthcare information management, software development and data analytics.

Sounds comforting? Well, don’t hope too much.

Relying on our government alone simply isn’t a wise move. The country’s already dealing with a lot of problems. If you can proactively make something happen yourself, why rely on the government?

It’s like saying, “I will not go to school or ever get a job because my parents have the money to feed me.”

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