By Richard Lawrence-Allen
In the last 50 or so years, technological advances have increased at an exponential rate. Computer chips are becoming ever more powerful with each year and are cheaper than ever to produce. With these advances, technologies that were once nothing more than a pipedream of imaginative science fiction writers are fast becoming science fact, with new gadgets becoming rapidly available for general purchase.
One common science fiction trope that has dominated TV, film and literature over the years is the ever-advancing domination of artificial intelligence (AI). While often used to portray the dangers of over ambitious technology and how a future dominated by robotic or cybernetic servants can be a threat to the safety of the human race, AI is now becoming a more and more present feature in the modern marketplace.
Early AI technology was shaky to begin with, being used as more of a novelty than an overly useful tool for everyday life. However, as advancements were made with voice recognition software and machine learning processes, AI now has now become an invaluable asset in many areas. Most people are now very familiar with AI in smartphone applications and household assistants such as Siri from Apple, Alexa from Amazon and Cortana from Microsoft. These applications allow people to set alarms and reminders, play music, search the internet, send messages, make voice calls, as well as many other simple tasks, all responding specifically to the users individual voice commands.
Last year saw another leap forward for AI when Google held a demonstration for their very own electronic assistant. Google Assistant manages all of the standard functions that we have quickly become accustomed to from other smartphone-based electronic PAs (as well as a few other added features). However, the startling aspect of Google Assistant’s latest iteration is its ability to handle incoming and outgoing phone calls on behalf of the user, mimicking natural human voice patterns including typical erotic vocalisations (e.g. umm, err, ah, etc.). Google Assistant is capable of holding conversations with humans in real time, responding to questions and problem solving a wide variety of predictable issues based on given parameters. While it is not completely without flaws, Google Assistant has proven itself to be a quick learner and future iterations of this technology as it advances even further promise great things.
As this type of technology advances even further, it begs the question of how AI will impact the telecommunications industry and how we may best use these tools going forwards. At the moment, AI works fantastically for outgoing customer calling for use by members of the public, as we see with Google Assistant. However, the tasks Google Assistant can be assigned at this point operate within a comparatively small decision tree. If a retailer were to attempt to apply this same technology to its inbound customer service team or its outbound sales campaigns, the decision tree the AI is faced with becomes infinitely larger, expanding opportunities to trip the software up, potentially creating larger problems.
Nevertheless, that is not to that AI has no current practical uses within contact centre at all, in fact the very opposite is true. AI will be very useful in tasks that seek to collect data from customers, in presentation of basic required information, and of course filtering calls through to the correct department/human agent in a more personal and direct way than traditional number selection menus. For example, if a number of customers call in to complain that their expected delivery has not arrived, AI can collect the customer post code and delivery numbers for the human customer service team. A pattern of delivery issues from the same courier or within the same location can then be determined by the AI and used pre-emptively to send customers warnings of delivery disruptions via text, email and/or voice calls. This will decrease overall inbound customer service calls received regarding a known problem, enhance the customer care experience and increase overall efficiency within the contact centre.
As this technology increases in its sophistication, it is no doubt that its applications within the telecommunications industry will increasingly broaden. However, we are unlikely to see an age where AI can completely replace human contact centre agents, regardless of its capabilities. This is can be put down to the uncanny valley effect. The uncanny valley concept suggests that artificial human-like objects. Where the object in question is similar to, but not exactly like, a human being will elicit feelings of cold eeriness and even revulsion in observers. Several reactions to the Google Assistant’s human-like qualities saw people react in this manner, though the achievement is incredibly impressive nonetheless. While it does seem that the uncanny valley effect may be somewhat generational, with younger generations more used to CGI, robots and advanced AI experiencing fewer reservations in interacting with them. Nevertheless, genuine human interaction will always have an important and valued place within telecommunications regardless of how advanced technology becomes, as people will always appreciate that empathetic touch that AI will never truly be able to adopt. True empathy is not something that can be mimicked, it must be felt, and regardless of how well AI my imitate this, the human recipient will always be able to tell the difference.
All in all though, it appears that AI is here to stay. It can, and should, be used to enhance the customer experience where appropriate within telecommunications and its potential is ever-expanding with each progressing year as technology continues to surpass expectation and amaze users around the world.