Robots Take Over More Low-Skill Jobs

Is it human or is it a machine?

China Daily Life
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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hi.i like robot to that school doesn't know for being model.god.

February 10 2014 at 1:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Good thing I went to school for electronics and computer engineering. Somebody's going to have to fix all the robots when something goes awry.

January 24 2014 at 9:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Two pharmacy customers have bought robots to refill the most common prescriptions. They fill the bottles as a Pharmacist types in the prescription plus refills those that come in by phone based on what prescription number the patient types in. it even prints the label and sticks it on the bottle. It works all night long doing refills, keeps up the inventory and orders restocking supplies as well. At 8AM the patients come in and their prescriptions are ready for pickup.
I saw one that could make hamburgers 30 years ago but it was very unreliable. I'm sure it has been much improved since then. If the low skill workers demand more than the work they do is worth robotic replacements will repalce them economically.

December 26 2013 at 7:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to nyhuguenot's comment

Trouble is, if/when they design reliable robots to do these "low skill" jobs, how are the people who used to do those jobs going to earn a living? Sure, some of them can go back to school and learn a more skilled trade. But then there's always going to be some that don't have the mental capacity to learn to do a job beyond the skill set it takes to answer a phone, direct a call, run a cash register, or flip a hamburger. How much money are they going to put into re-educating those people for other work, or supporting them in the event that they are actually considered unemployable and untrainable, because they simply might not be intelligent enough, or have adequate financial resources, to go back to school to learn a higher paying trade?

January 24 2014 at 10:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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