The Google tech that may threaten call center jobs

MANILA, Philippines – New technologies threatening to take away jobs from humans isn't news anymore these days. It's been on everyone's radar, from the worker all the way to the leaders, and is most likely inevitable. It is merely technology disrupting the work order once again not unlike the machines of industry at the turn of the 20th century. Optimistically, the hope now is for humans to take on new jobs higher in the value chain as robots slog through the more mundane, easily repeatable tasks.

One of the most at-risk sector with the onset of these new technologies is the call center industry. Automated voice response systems can now be designed to handle user concerns – repetitive tasks that can be duly programmed into and assigned to a machine. The Philippines is specially at risk as it is home to around 1.1 million to 1.3 million business process outsourcing (BPO) employees, a majority of which belonging specifically to the call center segment. 

This is the number of Filipinos that may be affected if and when automated answering technologies take off. Currently, the most advanced of these technologies may be Google's Duplex, a voice assistant that talks like a human. (READ: Philippines' BPO industry sees slower annual growth of 9% until 2022)

Duplex was first shown to the public at the tech giant's I/O conference in May 2018, where it was seen and heard making reservations at a restaurant and a salon, with the person at the other end of the line believing they were talking to a real person. Duplex's mimicry of natural human speech was so advanced that it even incorporated "humanisms" such as "umm" and "uhh" as it spoke. (Call it "Dupe-lex," perhaps?)

That its mimicry was excellent is a key development for voice systems. People don't like talking to machines. It's among the biggest technical problems explaining why voice systems haven't yet fully taken over. A 2015 study cited by Gizmodo said that only 10% are satisfied with automated voice response systems, and that 80% of callers speed through the automated portion to eventually get connected to a real human. 

If Duplex is indistinguishable from a real human, those satisfaction numbers would rise, to the chagrin of actual humans in the call center industry. 

Perhaps what separates Duplex from all the other perceived threats that the industry has been hearing over the years is that it's here, it's real, it's been showcased on the big stage.

It's theory coming to reality – and even if it's still considerably far from potentially taking over, it also may be closer than we think: Google is already talking with a potential customer regarding the use of Duplex in its customer support operations, according to The Information (paywall).

The potential customer, an unnamed large insurance company, is said to be testing the technology to handle simple calls, and escalate the calls to humans if the conversation becomes more complicated. The report emphasizes that the testing is in its early stages, and will still take months or more before it goes live.

Essentially: in a few months' time, Google Duplex could be handling real calls for a business. This is where the technology is at. 

It's worth mentioning that there are financial incentives for Google to dive into this business, as The Information reports. The cloud-based customer call center market is expected to grow to $20.9 billion by 2022 from $6.8 billion in 2017 according to research firm MarketsandMarkets.

Google makes about $30 billion per quarter, a small portion coming from their Google Cloud services, which include artificial intelligence (AI)-assisted data analysis. Duplex could fit into those services, says The Information. The AI-powered, natural-sounding voice systems market in the call center industry is currently uncaptured, with tech giants Google, Microsoft, IBM and Amazon – to name the high-profile players – jockeying for the top spot.

Google Duplex, based on what we've seen from it so far, has some traits that certainly make it attractive to businesses with contact center operations. It's also cheaper to roll out such a technology as opposed to human-powered call centers, with IBM estimating cost savings of about 60 to 80%, owing to lower training costs and fast scalability. 

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) in an April 2018 study said that over "half of the jobs in some economies in developing Asia are at risk," mentioning customer support jobs as at-risk. 

"The apparel and footwear industries, for example, are experimenting with completely automated production. Similarly, it is becoming technically feasible to automate more complex service tasks such as customer support. These developments have raised concern that automation could cause widespread job loss, slow wage growth, and worsen income inequality in developed and developing economies alike," the ADB said.

There are clearly profit and saving incentives for both technology provider and the business customer to adopt voice technologies eventually, which begs the question: What can the 1-million-plus call center employees do now to avoid potential displacement, and lock up a position in the value chain where they can work and co-exist with the robots?

There's time yet. Currently, there are ethical concerns that have forced the company that's currently testing Duplex to tread more carefully. Google too, facing backlash from the demo in which Duplex essentially made the human believe it was itself, human, is slowing down a bit to establish a code of behavior for Duplex. These are the current roadblocks, The Information says.

But they're likely not to stop the march completely, so before the robots arrive, it would be wise for the Philippine call center industry, the companies and employees alike, to think of the next steps more deliberately. – Rappler.com

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.

image