There’s been a raging debate on the impact of technology — most especially Artificial Intelligence (AI) — to humanity: society, business, organizations, and the world job market, etc. Fear of AI and the innovations it brings along are fueling the debates.
Britannica.com defines AI as “the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings.” But there’s no doubt that AI has lots of good impact on the lives of humanity.
Meanwhile, the fear of AI’s bad impact has reached the Philippines, particularly the money-making business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. Last year the Information Technology and Business Process Management (IT-BPM) conceded that 40,000 to 50,000 “low-skilled workers” were expected to be replaced by automation-driven AI. BPM is another name for BPO.
On January 24, no less than Socio-economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia in an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel’s “Headstart” said AI will hit the outsourcing industry really hard.
“In the next 3-5 years, it will really be hitting harder. It will be there, it will be a reality,” the government official said.
Pernia said that because of AI call center services using voice “is not going to be necessary when you have machines to do it.”
Rey Lugtu, a Filipino go-to-guy for IT, president and chief transformation officer of Hungry Workhorse, a digital transformation consultancy firm, has a more dire forecast, giving a timeline of only three years.
He was not just talking about 50,000 jobs to be lost by call or contact centers, but their entire 900,000 workers. “Artificial Intelligence is good, it will make processes simpler, it will make operations optimized. It has its good side. But the bad side is that it will potentially displace workers.” Lugtu said the 900,000 call center jobs are in danger of being “wiped out” within “three years” from now.
Reason: the exponential emergence of new technologies, particularly AI as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR 4.0) — the Digital Age — continues its inexorable march.
Thus, in countries with huge BPO industries like the Philippines, the loss of jobs could be staggering, and the loss could come not in five years’ time as other IT experts have predicted.
Lugtu, together with Colin Christie, executive director of Global Chamber Manila, engaged in a dialogue with journalists and social media practitioners recently at the Discovery Primea in Makati City.
The event launched PiliPINASCon 2018: Forum on Cyber Security & The Internet of Things (IoT) to be organized by the Global Chamber Manila on January 31 at The Tent, Enderun Colleges, in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City, Metro Manila.
In a separate interview with Christie, he noted the “really great public debate going on right now (about AI). That’s terrific because we are saying there’s been not much conversation on (cyber) security, yet on AI there are sort of two camps. Some are very worried, some are dismissive. I tend to be on the worried side.”
He said the exponential — not linear or step by step — growth of technology is fueling the debate on AI, adding that “exponential growth is what alarms people.”
Christie said: “Artificial Intelligence will advance a thousand times faster than the past 10 or 20 years.” (It can be recalled that AI was already a much-discussed technology as early as 1956.)
The Global Chamber Manila official said society as a whole, including representatives from the government, should be asking the question now, and not wait until technology overruns everything. “Ask the question, ‘how do we protect ourselves (from AI)’.”
On the other hand, Lugtu said AI’s first target in the BPO industry is the call center, saying, that of the more than one million workers in six sub-sectors in the country, nearly a million of them could be headed to the chopping block.
“We have 1.6 million employees in BPO; 900,000 of that are call center agents. Call center is the target of Artificial Intelligence because call center is a low-level BPO. It can be potentially replaced. It is happening now, in India as we speak,” Lugtu said.
He said he got the number of BPO workers in the country at 1.6 million overall from industry leaders. The rest of the 700,000 are workers in the five other sub-sectors of the BPO, he said, such as in software, animation, health information management, game development, and captive-in house, he said.
He mentioned the existence of a group that has been raising warnings on AI. “I am part of (a) group that is telling this to authorities, the dangers of (AI) displacing workers, because low-level call center agents can be immediately automated, not later. It’s now.”
Asked to repeat his statement, Lugtu did not hesitate. “My forecast is, and a lot of experts agree with me, it can potentially wipe out call center jobs in three years’ time. So, we have to do something. There’s no question about low-level call center agent jobs can be automated.”
The digital transformation analyst and adviser cited a hypothetical example: Imagine if there are 10 steps in the BPO call center job, steps from 1 to 5 can be automated (which means loss of jobs), like customer service, simple inquiry on price, on basic information.
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On the other hand, Lugtu said steps 6 to 10 can’t be automated or replaced by chatbots, such tasks as negotiation, or helping a customer go through the service, helping customer use a service. He said these functions can’t be automated.
He emphasized that 6 to 10 steps still require human interaction, a more complex interaction. “So, these are the things that we need to develop, to fully develop these we need analytics.”
Companies across industries, he added, if they want to enhance customer experience, they need to leverage analytics, data mining, etc. He said this is the reason his group is promoting the idea that the Philippines need to improve the skills of the BPO workers to handle analytics.
Lugtu is also for eliminating the low-level BPO work (call center job). “It will happen anyway. So, let us eliminate it now, but let us retrain (our workers).”
His group’s challenge to the local BPO industry and its leaders in the country, is “how much influence do our BPO executives in the Philippines have over their principals abroad. These are all American companies, they dictate the strategy, we are a delivery center.”
In essence, Lugtu seemed to mean that if the BPO principals in America want to automate jobs in the Philippines, what can Filipino executives do to stop them from virtually chopping off the call center agents’ heads.
Recalling the past series of Industrial Revolutions that eliminated many jobs and created more complex ones, he said the same can happen with AI. “This is another revolution, what we call Fourth Industrial Revolution. So, we will go through a painful transition globally, not just in the Philippines.”
He said everyone, private and public, must be of one mind and agree that AI presents a problem and this needs addressing now to ease the pain.