Rise of the Bots - Welsh ICE

Rise of the Bots

14th April 2016

Gareth Jones

This week marked the launch of Facebook’s Messenger Bots, but what impact could they have on the Welsh economy?

Facebook is aiming to create a marketplace that could replicate the impact they had in the last decade through their own app market, which created a multi-million dollar market way before Apple joined the party.

But how does the AI impact directly affect industries that economies like Wales’ rely on?

In the last decade, there has been a huge increase in the number of call centre [often referred to as contact centres] jobs across Wales, and in the UK, there are an estimated 1 million call centre workers.  The average salary for a contact centre worker is £19,000, starting at between £13,500 – £16,000, and for that they may be expected to receive anywhere between 20 – 200 calls depending on their industry.  The average salary in the UK is over £650 more per month than that which call centre workers receive.

A modern call centre, buzzing like a hive

The inefficiency of a human being in only being able to deal with one call at a time is pretty frustrating in an industry which is measured constantly on how long callers have been on hold, net promoter scores, and the call lengths.  AI replaces all of those issues.

In fact, you might have already started to contribute to the downfall of employed humans.  Have you noticed recently that a lot of people are asking their PA, Amy, to arrange appointments with you?  Amy Ingram is a very polite, efficient, and fastidious assistant who is also a sophisticated artificial intelligence.  And I have personally seen no disadvantage in arranging meetings through ‘her’ versus a breathing organism, which needs toilet breaks and, inconveniently, holidays.

But in Wales, a huge amount of fanfare has been made of the hundreds of jobs created, especially in the cities and towns that have a good supply of young people wanting a Hard-Fi ‘Living For The Weekend’ style existence.  They absorb talented people, and reduce them to a script with one eye always on the clock.  The employers struggle with high levels of churn, and the staff rarely feel valued, secure, or fulfilled in these roles.  We call them keybots, and it is only a matter of time before their employers rid themselves of this unreliable asset.

Assuming customer service is accepted by the public so long as it efficiently deals with your query or concern, then why not have a bot do the job and save on the small talk?

If 80% of enquiries could be dealt with by bots, such as address changes, account enquiries, service changes, cancellations, claims, etc., then Wales alone could comfortably lose over 30,000 jobs, taking more £500m out of the pockets of predominantly young people with dwindling alternative options.

So how do we build a bit of resilience into the economy to deal with this, and what happens as other industries start to embrace AI?  Haulage and coach drivers, taxi drivers, receptionists, and fast-food restaurant workers better all start to get on Udemy and find a new niche, because a change is coming, and it will be ruthless.

But when the options in front of you seem confusing, unlikely, or maybe even invisible, it is pretty clear to see why the call centre becomes the escape.  It is a useful escape for a generation of disaffected young people who are lost, lacking in confidence, and short on alternatives.

Maybe the question should be focused not on what AI and bots do to destroy these significant employers, but what the potential would be if this generation of smart and creative people were freed from their keyboards to do something more productive and rewarding with their days.

Not that it is that simple, but if the call centre workers of today became the developers who, at the coal face, can see the opportunities to develop software to solve their business critical issues, then perhaps they could ride out the storm.

Or, it might all fizzle out when society realises how valuable skills like genuine empathy and responsive feedback are, and perhaps older audiences might not have access to the required technology – fewer than one in two OAPs have internet access, which decreases further in rural areas.  Or the response might be like that over the last few years where companies like BT and Santander have brought call centre jobs back to the UK from overseas – although that might just be evidence that they won’t pause if they can find a cheaper option than UK workers.

So in the next 18 months, we need answers to find alternative roles for the thousands of people who are at risk of redundancy.  We will always advocate entrepreneurship, and we know that those workers are incredibly talented and have a role in the economy, but how do some people cope when they can’t see the alternatives?  And what is the solution for the rest of humanity, as we will all face the battle to provide more value than a bot?

That way, in 18 months or so, when the impact of the bots starts to hit, we need those workforces to be ready for the next step in their portfolio careers.

Jeffrey Lewis, the Brooklyn-born indie folkster sums it up pretty well with ‘Time Trades’:

And maybe that’s why they call a trade a trade, like when they say that ‘you should go and learn a trade’,

The thing you do don’t have to be to learn a trade, just get something back from time for all it takes away.

So what is the answer?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of a bot based economy, and opportunities it may present.

Comments:

Patrick Nash, CEO of Connect Assist in Nantgarw, has led 14 charities and social enterprises over the last 37 years of working in the third sector, including a role as CEO of the Teacher Support Network. He set up Connect Assist in 2006 to provide an outsourced helpline service and digital consultancy to charities.

Why Facebook’s new ‘chat bots’ could be bad news for the charity sector

Service users and donors want fast and accessible digital engagement, yet charities and third sector organisations are constantly being squeezed for resources. It’s easy to understand why Facebook’s announcement about the introduction of ‘chat bots’ to aid customer service assistants could be seem like a cost-effective way of meeting this need.

Yet, the fact that demand for charity helpline support is increasing on a year-by-year basis suggests people need a certain level of support that automatic robots could never provide.

The appeal of ‘chat bots’ in providing a necessary service while saving on vital resources and money is clear, but for the charity sector it could cause vulnerable service users to become ever more isolated. Making sure service users know they are dealing with a real person doesn’t have to mean a spoken conversation, but it does need to involve a human interaction.

Contact centre agents with the very specific skills to manage vulnerable people in need are already hard to come by, but a focus on automated customer services could mean the value of these skills are undermined.

Patrick Nash, CEO, Connect Assist

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