Are Customer Service Reps a Doomed Breed?

'Economist' explores how artificial intelligence is threatening the job
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 3, 2024 6:02 AM CST
Are Customer Service Reps a Doomed Breed?
   (Getty / Sitthiphong)

A few simple clicks online, no human needed on the other end. That was how Sophie Elmhirst's experience of buying contact lenses online was supposed to go. Instead, as she explains in the Economist, she made a mess of things with no fewer than four failed attempts. At that point, Gary—an actual human—got involved and not only fixed the order but had Elmhirst laughing along the way. Gary, it turns out, has been doing this for 22 years and has developed what he calls a "precognitive, second nature" about how to talk to customers—when to joke, when to stick to business, and above all, how to sort through the trouble made by bots and humans alike. He is, in short, very good at his job. The question posed by Elmhirst's story is how long he'll get to keep it in the age of artificial intelligence.

Roughly 17 million people work in call centers around the world, including 3 million in the US, writes Elmhirst. And they know AI is coming for them—by one estimate cited in the story, up to 30% of these jobs will be gone by 2026. The story details the advances in what Elmhirst calls "automating empathy," the goal being that customers won't know the difference between human and machine, or won't care if informed. AI is constantly learning and improving, "ironing out the kinks," but when Elmhirst checks back with Gary to update him on these developments, he is skeptical about the emotionless process and wonders what's so bad about a few kinks along the way. "Why is it all of a sudden everything has to be 100% beautifully perfected responses?" he says. "It reminds me of processed cheese, Sophie." Read the full story. (Or check out other longform recaps.)

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