Robots Take Over More Low-Skill Jobs

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If you've ever done telemarketing work, chances are that sometime during a particularly mechanical delivery of a pitch, someone asked if you were a recording. You answer "no" (or, if you were feeling particularly clever, "yes") and the customer gets a laugh.

But what was a particularly human interaction has apparently turned into another example of machine aping man. Some journalists at Time Magazine had a run-in with a robot telemarketer that insisted it was real:

When [Washington Bureau Chief Michael] Scherer asked point blank if she was a real person, or a computer-operated robot voice, she replied enthusiastically that she was real, with a charming laugh. But then she failed several other tests. When asked "What vegetable is found in tomato soup?" she said she did not understand the question. When asked multiple times what day of the week it was yesterday, she complained repeatedly of a bad connection.

Here's a recording of an interaction.


The voice claimed to belong to a "Samantha West" during one conversation. In each call, the voice claimed to be responding to a request about information on healthcare coverage. Perhaps West had a botanical background and knew that, technically, a tomato is a fruit. Then again, maybe West stands for Worker Electronic Substitute Technology. The answers the voice gave to questions -- when they weren't about produce -- showed "pitch perfect repetition" and the approach was clearly designed to sort through people and then transfer them to the most appropriate human (for now) salesperson.

Shortly after the story ran, the phone number associated with Samantha West forwarded to a busy signal and the website name given by a human who answered at one point was taken offline.

It's an interesting twist on consumer telemarketing war stories, and one that is likely to get only more entrenched in the ways companies do business.

For years, call centers have been a source of work, often low-paying and not necessarily personally rewarding, to many who needed a job. And yet, over a period of decades, corporations have looked for ways to automate telephone work. Interactive voice response systems came to replace the live receptionists and operators who once handled all inbound calls. At first you might have to push a button to get directed to the right department or get the employee directory. Eventually, the systems integrated ever advancing voice recognition to identify what most people were saying and to appropriately connect them while minimizing hourly positions.

Clearly some companies are trying to extend the approach to outbound calls. People by and large hate telemarketing calls and feel free to hang up on what is obviously a recording. Make the automated system sound human, and the consumer is culturally conditioned to be less likely to abruptly end the call.

If the robot is restricted to some screening questions and limited interaction, a company can reduce costs on a first stage of an interaction, putting its money into those who close business and eliminating entry-level positions that might have eventually let people move on to more lucrative employment.

So, at least some types of positions will be safe, right? Don't bet on it. Remember how IBM's Watson system beat Jeopardy grand champions? Well, it's already being used in customer service positions.

Robots are already replacing humans in positions that deal with the public. They're even moving into the fast food industry. Maybe it's time for a career switch: become an expert in taking care of your robotic replacement.
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