I’ve been asked many times recently to comment on how the rise of AI will impact the jobs and the economy, particularly in customer service and contact centers. I’ve seen wildly differing forecasts, from the dire predictions of Elon Musk to the optimistic predictions of Accenture. According to Forrester’s recently released ‘The Future of Jobs’ report, robots will take 24.7 million jobs by 2027, but create 14.9 million new jobs in the same period. There is no doubt that AI will impact jobs globally more than any other technology in our lifetime. The key question is “what should we do about it?”
The answers depend on your point of view and whether you’re a government leader, a business leader or a worker thinking about your own future. Should we tax robots, as Bill Gates suggests? Should we adopt universal basic income as Musk suggests? “Ultimately,” said Musk, “I think there will need to be some sort of improved symbiosis with digital superintelligence, but that’s a pretty involved discussion.”
There are huge societal questions that I won’t attempt to answer here. Instead, I tend to approach the topic of AI and jobs in the same way that I approach the question “how do you eat an elephant?” (Answer: one bite at a time). There are several near-term challenges and opportunities for businesses, and the best thing that business leaders can do is understand what those are.
While some see a bleak future, I see a future where AI and machine learning will create new categories of work, and amplify human intelligence. Computers bring incredible processing power and memory, and can mine vast amounts of information in a short period of time, while humans bring the emotional intelligence and problem-solving skills to handle unexpected or uncommon situations. In the next few years, I see AI becoming integral to the productivity of the workforce.
As leaders think about how AI will impact their businesses in the next few years, there are several key questions they should consider:
One of the most obvious areas that AI will impact jobs in the next few years is in customer service and sales, especially in the contact center. Chatbots have the potential to help businesses significantly cut labor costs, which increases profits, but has a human impact. Improvements in AI have enabled chatbots to create effective automated responses that helps businesses generate sales and boost consumer satisfaction. According to a study by Oracle, nearly 80 percent businesses have already implemented, or are planning to adopt, AI as a customer service solution by 2020.
According to McKinsey, 29 percent of customer service positions and 36 percent of sales representative positions in the US could be automated through chatbots and other tech. BI Intelligence estimates that equates to savings of $23 billion annually in customer service salaries, and $15 billion annually in sales salaries.
Those are compelling numbers, and it’s clear why so many companies are exploring this. Because of advances in AI, businesses can use artificially intelligent chatbots as virtual agents that replicate the effectiveness of their best human agents. This has the potential to reduce customer frustration and wait times.
However, it is essential to remember chatbots are still an outward facing extension of the brand, and even though they are not human, consumer expectations around their performance will be high. Moreover, a robot does not have the empathy to handle a frustrated customer, or the creativity to drum up a solution to a particularly unique issue. These uniquely human capabilities shouldn’t be underestimated – they’re essential to the workforce of the future, particularly the customer experience of the future. And if companies are incentivized to invest in the platform development and training to empower humans and machines to work together, automation can be less of a risk, and more an opportunity.
Bots have the power to create, not just destroy jobs. In the near future AI and chatbots will free human workers from many repetitive, mundane tasks. This will cost some jobs but it will also create new positions – some not even invented yet. (Think stables and blacksmiths vs. parking garages and mechanics a hundred years ago.)
Let’s take a contact center today and consider how it might evolve for tomorrow. Today, there’s little distinction between someone designing conversations vs. handling customer queries, but in the near future, many of the routine activity that agents handle will go away. In the next few years, I believe that 80 percent of contact center operations will be automated. The other 20 percent will be highly paid customer service jobs, including agents with the capability to train machines to become smarter. The agent of future will be more educated, more sophisticated and apply principles of psychology to handle high-value, complex conversations with customers
This will have a greater impact on countries such as Colombia, Guatemala, India and the Philippines, which have a much higher population of contact center agents than the United States. I envision something similar to what happened in the 90s when all the maintenance work started moving there. Over time, those jobs transitioned into actual development, and now many of the largest software companies including Adobe and Microsoft create new products there.
Automation will affect every industry, but the vital role of humans working behind the veil of AI should not be underestimated. The notion of fully autonomous AI is still a thing of fantasy for now. For the foreseeable future, businesses will need humans to teach machines to work smarter, and bridge the gap where AI falls short – particularly when it comes to the complexities of human emotion. Human labor remains a key component of the AI loop, and as we’ve seen with just about every other major technological advancement, some jobs will be lost but many more will be created to fit this new reality.
PV Kannan is the Co-Founder and CEO of 7.ai. Since 2000, he has been leading the revolution to make customer service easy and enjoyable for consumers. In 1995, PV's first company, Business Evolution Inc., developed the first generation of email and chat solutions. The company was acquired by Kana in 1999 and PV became part of the management team. At 7.ai, PV was a pioneer in integrating customer service technology with business process operations to improve all aspects of the customer experience. PV has been at the forefront of customer experience from creating contact center agent services, developing a big data predictive analytics platform, creating omnichannel solutions for the web, mobile, chat, social, and speech IVR, to innovating mobile-centric applications. Over the years PV has been a thought leader in global customer service and has been featured in the books, The World is Flat and That Used to Be Us by Thomas L. Friedman, India Inside by Nirmalya Kumar and Phanish Puranam, and Reinventing Management: Smarter Choices for Getting Work Done by Julian Birkinshaw. PV is on the Board of Directors for Achievers. He has over 20 patents (issued and pending). PV has degrees in accounting and finance from the Institute of Chartered Accountants and The Institute of Cost and Works Accountants of India.