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Calljoy, Call Centers, and Humans in the Loop

One of the experiences that caused me to found Mycroft was a short call I had with the Wichita Hyatt.  I had a rather complex question so when the automated attendant answered  I prepared myself for frustration.  As it turned out, however, their automated attendant they was capable of dealing with my problem without human intervention.

This experience hinted that true conversational AI was just around the corner.  Someone was going to build one, why not me?

Fast forward five years and it is clear to anyone who is paying attention that a strong AI will be here soon.  There are many definitions of a “strong AI”, but my preferred definition is that it is a computer system that interacts so naturally that people can’t tell if they are interacting with a human or a machine.  By that definition strong AI is here, at least in some narrow domains.

For those of you who missed it, our friends at Google have recently deployed a technology named “Calljoy” which eliminates frustrating menu systems in favor of natural language interaction.  Billed as an affordable replacement for other automated attendants, Calljoy is actually something much more profound.  It is a technology that imitates a real human well enough to trick many callers into thinking they are speaking to a real person.

Now don’t get me wrong, Calljoy can’t have a conversation about the impact of Nietzshian philosophy on 20th century warfare.  Its utility is limited to the types of interactions you’d typically have with a call center agent, but it is the first step toward a strong AI. 

This development should be alarming for the millions of men and women who work at reception desks and call centers around the world.  As Calljoy gets better and better it will begin to show economies of scale that human labor simply can’t match. That means the elimination of millions of entry level jobs in favor of more revenue for a single company that employs less than one hundred thousand full time workers.

Admittedly, call center work isn’t going to go away entirely.   Technologies like Calljoy will eliminate repetitive calls asking for hours, payment terms, inventory, etc., but it won’t be able to solve problems at the human level for quite some time.  That means the people work in in call centers will be solving more difficult and more interesting problems.  For folks stuck answering the same 25 questions over and over each day this should result in improved working conditions.  For the vast majority of call center workers, however, Calljoy is the first iteration of a technology that will eventually eliminate their jobs.

So how do we stop this from happening?  We don’t. Technology will inevitably move forward.  What we can do, however, is work to make sure that the economic benefits of technologies like Calljoy don’t all flow to companies like Google that have more cash on hand than they can possibly put to productive use.  Building open technologies that allow businesses to deploy this type of application without paying Google will go a long way toward leveling the playing field.