Rise of the machines: Are robotised call centres now upon us?

The contact centre is in the midst of a technological leap which only a few years ago seemed to belong to the future, but which may soon be taken for granted by customers.

That’s the prediction from industry observers as robotics and artificial intelligence look set to drive a whole new industrial revolution. Call centres are a sector which could be fundamentally transformed by automation, with tens of thousands of UK jobs at risk.

Where Google leads, all will follow…?

Google is making great strides with Duplex, its human-sounding virtual helper. The tech giant has already demonstrated ways in which the voice assistant can make simple calls to real-life humans to perform routine tasks like booking appointments or organising deliveries.

The application of such technology into the automation of call handling and call answering seems the next logical leap, and the appeal of such systems for telemarketing companies seems inevitable. After all, why pay and have to motivate a staff member on minimum wage to make hundreds of calls in the hope of landing one lead when a robot could do it all faster and for a fraction of the cost?

Umming and ahhing

Until now, artificial call answering methods have largely left customers unimpressed. Automated voice-recognition systems have been found to irritate callers. Surveys suggest that most people who call a company hope to speak to a human and will race through voice-response answering in order to speak to a real person.

But Google has been busy perfecting the ‘human qualities’ of Duplex and has even added “ums” and “ahs” to make the AI-system sound more fluid and, well, human.

Will the robots of the future ever be human-like enough?

As impressive as the tech may be, however, there have been concerns – particularly around the fact that people may unaware they’re conversing with a robot. Google has already conceded that it will have Duplex tell people they’re speaking to an AI system.

These ethical concerns may yet put the brake on such systems being employed by firms operating large call centres to handle routine inquiries. The company who makes the first headlines for rendering large numbers of staff redundant because they’re being replaced by robots is likely to face public backlash. We could be decades away from robots being unleashed on more complex calls or those which require an element of human interaction.

Perhaps there are simply some calls that robots will never be able to deal with. Those requiring empathy, compassion and understanding, or where a complex set of decisions must be made – such as in the case of emergency calls or a telephone answering service offering advice. Those calls which require a human ‘touch’ may never be truly robotised.