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    The Artificially Intelligent Call Center Operator

    Written by

    Victoria Turk

    Editor, UK

    With the launch of a new artificial intelligence platform tuned for customer interaction, computers have another job in sight: call centre workers. But they won’t just be asking you to “please hold” or “press three if you would like to speak to a human;” thanks to improved natural language processing, they might actually be able to help with your query.

    Business Wire reports that international IT company IPsoft today announced its AI platform “Amelia,” aimed at working alongside humans to “shoulder the burden of tedious, often laborious tasks.”

    You can see Amelia flaunt her stuff in the video above, which shows people getting aggro with the kind of dumb existing systems you might have had the misfortune of attempting to deal with when you call a support line. According to IPsoft, Amelia differs from these because she “interfaces on human terms,” which, in human terms, means she can “understand” what you’re asking for.

    Examples shown include helping you start your car, plan your business trip, or replace your credit card. What’s interesting is that Amelia doesn’t just offer you a list of most probable responses like an interactive FAQ page; the company claims that she uses the same instruction manuals as her human equivalents.

    She’s an example of cognitive computing; she’s able to learn from the information she’s exposed to rather than having everything pre-programmed. When Amelia is faced with a query she doesn’t understand, for instance, she builds on her knowledge by searching the internet. Faced with a particularly tricky request, she’ll pass the problem on to a human colleague, but learn from the response.

    The key is context. Rather than comparing words against a checklist of complaints when you call to ask why your computer won’t work, IPsoft explains that Amelia engages with the specific question asked. They give the example of two requests that are phrased differently but mean the same: “My email locked me out” and “I am locked out of my email.” Amelia would understand that they’re the same.

    It’s the kind of natural language distinction that’s obvious to humans but traditionally difficult for robots to get their algorithmic heads around, and being able to tell the difference makes Amelia seem more convincing than the kind of chatbots that have fooled the Turing Test.

    The Wall Street Journal reports that some Fortune 100 companies are already testing Amelia in their call centres, where her machine brain gives her the kind of consistency that humans can’t compete with. IPsoft emphasises the business advantages of using an AI system over a human: You can field more calls, provide support in multiple languages, and only pay for the resources used.

    But while the company suggests that this could free up human workers for more demanding tasks, some see Amelia as yet another sign of the threat of robots to human employment. Earlier this year, the India Times suggested the technology could threaten the country’s thriving outsourcing industry.

    Perhaps the creepiest part of Amelia, however, is the attempt to imbue her systems with some level of emotional intelligence. Her makers claim that she can sense human emotions and “respond appropriately,” and the Telegraph reports that there are even plans to embed the system in humanoid robots like Softbank’s relentlessly cute “emotional” robot Pepper.

    At the moment, her so-called emotional responses seem pretty characteristically robotic, with the video showing her animated face frown a bit and wink awkwardly. (Is that something humans ever actually do?)

    Nevertheless, an ability to pick up on emotions when you’re dealing with fraught tech support queries is no doubt an advantage—and at least she doesn’t actually have any feelings to get hurt by frustrated callers swearing down the phone.