Irish Examiner: Human robots prepare to take on customer service

With robots able to gobble up data and spit out answers more quickly than humans, they have already been hired to take up roles in customer support.

A study by Oxford University and Deloitte found that UK jobs in customer service were one of the top 50 occupations at risk of becoming automated by robotics.

But even as bots break into the mainstream, humans are still needed to deal with customers, according to Liam Keegan, a content marketing specialist at XSellco, an Irish company that offers help desk and repricing technology to online retailers.

“At the moment, bots are good at cutting out the really basic, low-hanging fruit in customer support… Basically, bots are just a fancy version of automated responders on telephones,” Mr Keegan says.

They are good at dealing with mind-numbing, repetitive customer queries. Where they fail is in their ability to process empathy and “the human stuff”.

If the customer is angry, an automated response is not going to appease them for long.

Add any degree of complexity and automated responders won’t work, Mr Keegan explains.

“There are a lot of semantic technologies being developed to make machine learning better, to make artificial intelligence better, to understand human language. But we’re nowhere near that being applied in a business situation,” he says.

Humans are still much better at dealing with complex queries. It’s likely to stay that way for some time. Large companies are, however, investing heavily in the potential for ‘chat bots’.

Facebook rolled out a bots service in its Messenger app earlier this year. And Mr Keegan believes that smaller companies will also dabble in “bot life”.

These firms could be a testing ground because the bots could work for them in dealing with repetitive tasks such as maintaining a presence on social media.

If bots work for firms at this level, they could start using them more widely across their business.

The process is likely to be slow, however. “Once we have a template that works across the board, I think you’ll see it become more prevalent across small and medium sized businesses,” Mr Keegan says.

Tom Richards, group product manager at Intercom, the Irish tech start-up that creates live chat and marketing services, says using bots will not necessarily replace human interaction.

Bots could help humans to put their “best foot forward” and resolve issues more quickly.

“I think that interactions with customers can be a really complex workflow. Before you have any of theses interactions or while you’re trying to juggle loads of them at once in a customer support context, you have to learn a lot about the things that are happening in that customer’s life that leads them to the question they have. Bots are going to be great at being able to set that context for humans,” Mr Richards says.

“They’re going to be able to give humans a real leg-up inside the support tools they use while talking to customers, so they can focus on the conversation rather than the administrative tasks,” he adds.

Professor Barry O’Sullivan — the director of the insight centre for data analytics at University College Cork and the incoming vice-chair of the European Association for Artificial Intelligence — says that though artificial intelligence is developing at a fast pace, the process is still slow.

“One of the very early innovators in artificial intelligence and winner of the Nobel Prize, Herbert Simon, once said that ‘Machines will be capable … of doing any work a man can do.’ I believe that Simon was right, but we’re several decades away from this,” Prof O’Sullivan says.

There are already a number of systems able to carry out many semi-professional and customer-facing jobs.

But he warns to expect “a fundamental change in the nature of work over the coming years”. The social effects will need to be carefully assessed.

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on August 2, 2016.

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