Mon | May 28, 2018

George Davis | Will robots eat BPO supper?

Published:Tuesday | May 15, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Employees at work at a local business processing outsourcing centre. File

Successive governments have bet our job creation future on the continued growth of the business process outsourcing, BPO industry. BPO has already proven itself to be a winner, ranking as Jamaica's leading job-creating industry over at least the past eight years.

The industry contributed 11,000 new jobs in the 2017-18 fiscal year, with then Finance Minister Audley Shaw announcing at an investors' forum on January 17 this year that an additional 50,000 new BPO jobs would be added to the economy in "pretty short time".

The Government has signed off on a deal to establish a BPO campus of 300,000 square feet of space on lands in St Andrew, with another BPO campus occupying 160,000 square feet of space set for the Portmore Informatics Park, adding to the 50,000 square feet of BPO space now being used in that part of St Catherine.

Beyond those numbers, if you look around Kingston and Montego Bay, there are buildings going up quickly,as BPO investors and the Government hustle to create more space to accommodate new employees, especially those coming out of the universities in their thousands at the end of each academic year.

But as ever, a problem looms. Technology developers, especially those tasked with introducing the next generation of artificial intelligence tools, may have already created a product that history may well record as the BPO killer.

At its annual developers conference last week at Shoreline Amphitheatre in California, Google unveiled a virtual assistant called Duplex, which is designed to revolutionise the way robots interact with humans over the phone.

Watching the conference, and notwithstanding the quantum advances in technology over the past 15 years, I am still dumbstruck by what I witnessed. Whereas in the past it was clear when an automaton (robot) was talking to you on the phone, Google Duplex is already so well developed that it's almost impossible to tell that the 'person' on the other end of the line is not actually a human being.

I watched, in astonishment, a recording of the Duplex calling a barber shop, speaking with a real-life receptionist, and making a reservation for a haircut. I watched another video of Duplex calling a restaurant and speaking with another receptionist to make a dinner reservation for a group. The robot voice had the natural pauses along with the umms and aahs of natural speech to the extent that on both occasions, I got so pulled into the conversation that I forgot that one of the two persons speaking was actually a robot!

 

Human agents replaced

 

I am sure none of the humans in the videos would even imagine they were talking to a robot. Technology developers are raving over Duplex, with some calling it the most incredibly terrifying thing ever created.

The creators of Duplex intend for the technology to be a major player in the call-centre business in short order. The USA is the world's biggest call-centre operator, employing upwards of six million people at about 40,000 locations.

Google Duplex is set to massively shake up how that sector operates, with, as you guessed it, many human agents expected to be replaced by automatons. Britain's Future of Work Commission and Europe's leading contact-centre analytics firm ContactBabel both agree that the retail end of the call-centre industry will be quickest to embrace the kind of technology that allows them to reduce the cost of contact with customers.

And the development of automated solutions such as Google Duplex gives these retailers a cheap and ready-made alternative to employing a human to interact with customers.

So what for Jamaica? It is true that on this day in sports, our BPO agents mainly address more complex issues with customers and clients than any artificial intelligence software can handle. But that is only today's outlook. Next month can be a different story, given the rapid rate at which technology develops.

This means that we may have to accelerate Jamaica's transition from a BPO focus to a knowledge process outsourcing (KPO) focus, while continuing the jobs growth in this area. BPO now will not be the same BPO in 2023. And if we can't keep pace with the advancements in technology, it's a given that 'robot will nyam wi supper'.

Selah.

- George Davis is a communications consultant and media executive. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and george.s.davis@hotmail.com.