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Will AI do to services what machines did to manufacturing?

The story of automation has sometimes gotten caught up in familiar tropes: Robots are coming to take away everybody’s jobs.

Perhaps a more imaginative version goes something like this: Highly-intelligent supercomputers will take over the planet, and the best scenario for us humans will be that we’ll be made redundant, left to idle away in luxury, passively consuming what’s left of our planet’s resources; while the worst-case scenarios range from human enslavement to the total annihilation of the species.

While this has made for some fantastic Sci-Fi literature, film, and television, historical experience tells us to relax — we can quit packing our doomsday suitcase and get on with our lives.

Now it’s true, automation, just like all technological advancements, has had — and will continue to have — an impact on the labor market. Some jobs will be automated away. Many jobs will change in nature. Some for the better, others no. Of course, new, unheard-of jobs will be invented.

Automation is a big word with many shades of literal and figurative meaning. For the purposes of this piece, we’re going to look at two (oversimplified) ways to approach this complex concept.

Firstly, there are the robots. Let’s say this is automation in the physical world: real big, heavy mechanical arms and hands that can lift and move cars, or even small and incredibly precise mechanical fingers that can cut diamonds no bigger than a grain of rice. That these mechanical robots would take away jobs was a huge concern in the of goods manufacturing industries, which dominated advanced economies in the post-war industrial boom.

Secondly, there’s Artificial Intelligence (AI). This form of immaterial automation exists as pattern-seeking codes worming through digital mountains of data, ready to take certain actions in order to achieve a pre-programmed outcome.

Whereas robotics was a concern for employment in the goods economy, AI’s perceived impact is for the service industries, which could be anything from banking and finance, IT services, to more human-work as in the health and wellness services.

The service economy has been around as long as the goods, but it seriously began to overtake manufacturing in the last decades running-up to the dot-com boom of the new millennium.

As manufacturing has declined relative to the service sector in the United States and other advanced industrial countries, now it’s intellectual, creative, and empathetic labor which is more common than that of strength, endurance and precision.

Reconsidering the good(s) old days

What comes to mind when we think of this era is probably a bunch of sweaty men in grease-stained overalls in factories, likely making cars or refrigerators or maybe just massive pieces of steel rods and ingots. (Women being unofficially employed doing care work at home.) In fact, a lot of this imagery predates the post-war boom — think of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece Modern Times.

The takeaway from this slightly anachronistic image is the assembly line, or more specifically, the scientific management of the division of labor — call it Fordism in practice, or Taylorism in theory.

Instead of workers bringing their own specialized knowledge of complex processes of production, management sought to de-skill the individual, study the separate stages of productive knowledge, and split up the activity so that each worker would be the most productive at one specific task within a larger compartmentalized process.

Working apart

Collaboration was limited or non-existent, which also meant there was little sharing of knowledge and skills among workers. Ultimately, this led to a certain feeling of alienation, firstly, between co-workers who had little overlap in their daily grind; secondly, between workers and management, the latter of whom sought to maximize worker output by treating them like replaceable machines; finally, between workers and the fruits of their labor.

This last point is important because when workers have no sense of connection to the final goods that they are a part of producing, they’re not very likely to give a damn about their company, and ultimately, the people on the other end for whom they’re making stuff—that is, the customers.

Then came the robots

How was all of this affected by the introduction of mechanical robotics? These kinds of machines thrived in a setting where their human coworkers were also reduced to robot-like taskmasters. Often, a human worker’s job would simply be “manning the machine” — that is, operating the robot, making sure it doesn’t go haywire, and performing routine maintenance and repairs. One person per robot further entrenched the specialization and atomization on the factory floor.

This was before robots were “smart,” meaning, among other things, they did not “talk to each other.” Robots would not share information, they wouldn’t feed data into a centralized system from which other robots could extract knowledge and learn from it. Just as workers were cut off from one another, so too were the mechanical automators of the time.

But did it slash jobs in drastic dystopian numbers? As this story on the Lordstown GM plant explains, it wasn’t so much automation that threatened jobs, it was competition from global producers — notably Volkswagen in Germany and Toyota in Japan) — that forced management to squeeze more productive output per minute from workers and altered the assembly line.

Sure some jobs were lost, for example, 700 jobs in quality control were made redundant by automation. But for many workers, their jobs had simply changed.

Serving up brains over bodies

Just to avoid any confusion, as was explained earlier, when we talk about “service” we are not specifically referring to “customer service,” although that is probably one of the most important roles in the service industry. We’re talking about work where people are not making things, but rather doing things, like serving, helping, advising, teaching, entertaining, fixing, etc.

Of course, the service economy has always been around (think tax collectors and courtesans). However, the absolute shift in the economy when service became dominant to goods dovetailed with the rise of the home computer, the internet, e-commerce and the entire digital revolution. More business interactions are taking place in cyberspace rather than in meatspace; even goods-commodities purchased online require a lot more workers engaged in immaterial labor (IT) and human engagement (call center support staff).

Working together

Now here’s a point of distinction between that old school image of men in factories and today’s more common scene of people in call centers: the sharing of information. Unlike the scientific management of assembly lines, workers in the service industry can do a much better job serving their customers when they collaborate, share information, exchange tips, pool resources, contribute to collective knowledge, and maintain open networked lines of communication with other departments in their enterprises and industries.

Now come the bots

Within these more human-centric types of jobs, AI replaced robots as the main form of automation— that is, the automation migrated off the factory floors and into the inner workings of digital platforms.

Instead of lifting, moving and placing heavy objects, digital automation would take over such tasks like collecting information, sorting and categorizing data, routing workflows, auto-triggering notifications and events; and most importantly, delivering actionable feedback on past activity to further improve efficiency and the quality of service. Such intelligent processes could never function optimally in the atomized work structures within a strict division of labor.

In other words, the more communication and collaboration the better, and that’s true of both artificially intelligent machines and emotionally intelligent humans. Working in the service economy with the help of AI would reverse the trends of alienation, and make work more human.

And this, we shall see, makes a massive difference when it comes to customer service.

How may I be of service?

Customer service and support is a key factor in creating an excellent customer experience. It’s here where problems arise that when left unresolved, leads to dissatisfied customers — and frustrated agents.

AI can never really take over such tasks like displaying patience with people, and using high-level emotional intelligence to solve many of their problems. What AI can do, is take over the more rote work of service, like support triage, CRM data entry, and automated workflows. When human support agents are no longer bogged down by repetitive tasks, they become freer to engage their intellect, creativity and empathy in their jobs.

So the question, will AI cut into human employment in the service sector, and more specifically, customer service and support? To answer that, ask yourself this question: did SEO specialist, social media moderator, or chatbot script editor exist as real jobs decades ago? No.

Advances in technology, especially automation, might lead to wholly new specialized positions in the future we cannot imagine today. Almost all of them will be more challenging and rewarding work than, say, manual data entry.

ATMs: Not taking over jobs, taking over tasks

MIT economist David H. Autor is perhaps one of the most outspoken voices against the fear-mongering that automation is a job killer. One of his most common examples is the bank ATM—which is sort of somewhere between a robot qua dumbwaiter for cash, as well as a basic computer interface. When ATMs were introduced, human tellers were, unsurprisingly, concerned it would take their jobs.

It didn’t. Instead, tellers performed far fewer basic deposit and withdrawal transactions, and instead up-skilled to more human-centric tasks like sales and customer service.

Creval: Banking on satisfaction

When it comes to customer satisfaction, AI has been proving a consistent boon. Take Italian banking group Credito Valtellinese (Creval), which has always tried to differentiate itself by focusing on “customer delight and the customer relationship.” They launched an AI virtual assistant platform for its service operations for over 360 branches. Their goal was not to cut down the number of agents, but to lighten their load of simpler tasks so they’d be empowered to help people with more complex issues.

The results were significant: It cut down the amount of human-fielded calls by 80%, reducing the efforts of human agents by 40%. As Matteo Pizzicoli, Director of Banking Organization and Innovation at Creval Sistemi e Servizi (CSS), puts it: “The cognitive system can reduce human effort and eliminate or reduce tasks that are repetitive and without value; this allows our people to be focused on the very high-value customer questions.”

As for users, they report positive feedback 92% of the time they’ve dealt the virtual assistant. The takeaway, again, is that AI isn’t just a way to speed up work — that might have been the goal of robots scaling up output in the factory. AI meant better quality service.

Ava: Make room for trust

3D giants Autodesk has an AI chatbot turned virtual assistant called Ava. She’s pretty impressive: not only can she express a wide range of human emotions with her animated facial expressions, but she can also even recognize the moods of her human interlocutors by analyzing their expressions. This is great for situations when customers are frustrated; Ava can prioritize their needs and route them to the human agent best qualified to help them.

Nonetheless, “AI assistants have their limits,” agrees the top brass at Autodesk and DigitalGenius (an AI customer service automation company). When it comes to more complex issues that aren’t merely technical, but psychological and emotional, “there’s a lot of trust needed … even an anthropomorphic bot can’t do that level of trust.”

With Ava—and indeed many AI assistants in the service industry—it’s not about replacing humans, but letting them focus on establishing trust, empathy and emotional intelligence when helping customers.

“More than 1,000 experts agree…”

One of the big differences between mechanical automation and digital automation is how the workforce is restructured to be optimized for these robots and bots. On the factory floor, humans were atomized and alienated, and further disconnected from what they were building, and the people they were building it for: the customers.

In the startup offices, call centers, coworking spaces and entrepreneurial garage operations of today’s workforce, AI thrives off human-to-human communication and collaboration. This encourages a more open workforce, which helps people feel connected to the services they offer, and ultimately, to the people they aim to serve.

Still, the big debate between automation and human employment will rage on for some time to come. In fact, out of almost 2,000 experts canvassed by a 2014 Pew Research Center study, slightly more than half believe that AI and robotics “will not displace more jobs than it creates” (original emphasis). At least, that dystopian mindset is likely on the wane.

Almost all those experts from the Pew study agree, however, that technology is redefining work, making it less about drudgery, and more about employing our uniquely human abilities: intelligence, creativity, empathy, and teamwork.

A moderate revolution

There’ll be no robo-wars; there’ll be no AI domination. That doesn’t mean a dreamy (or dreary depending how you look at it) future, where people can live on permanent holiday while automation does all the work.

Historically, when we’ve saved time by automating, we turned to sharing knowledge, to experimenting, and scaling up. There’s a reason one industrial revolution gave birth to another, and on to the digital revolution. Still, as we imagine and create the industries and jobs of the future, we could use a lot of help handling our tasks of today.

That’s where the bots come in.

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