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This 'virtual employee' is proof that the robot takeover is upon us


Screen Shot 2016 04 25 at 6.44.39 PM

When you first meet Amelia, you got the impression that she's all business: white Oxford shirt underneath a blazer, blonde hair seemingly pulled back in a ponytail. 

"She," in this case, is an avatar created by IPsoft, the global information technology services company. In a demo shown to Tech Insider, she shifts her weight from side to side when waiting for someone to speak, and smiles in between questions. If you tell her you're upset about something, she'll frown in empathy.

If all goes according to plan, Amelia will be the customer service agent of the future, an "employee" who can field customer support questions for people without needing to bringing a human in.

IPsoft solutions manager Benjamin Case tells Tech Insider that these low-level tasks are remarkably consistent across industries. Whether it's banking or insurance or cable, much of customer support is helping people get into locked out accounts, resetting passwords, and checking in on the status of documents, like whether the payment on a bill has gone through. 

"There are people around the world in care centers doing rote, routine, and mundane tasks," Case says. "They require a small set of subject matter expertise to really get that job done. work reasonably well documented, able to be understood in short order. It’s the low-hanging fruit."

The bot is already being piloted in banking, insurance, and telecom companies in the US and in Europe. IPsoft tells Tech Insider that by the end of the 2016, Amelia will have 100 large scale deployments in client companies, either supporting employees internally or facing customers or suppliers externally.

With Amelia, IPsoft is hoping to get in on what McKinsey called the $5 to $7 trillion opportunity for the automation of rote "knowledge work" tasks like taking customer support calls. Deloitte has estimated that in the US alone, the automation of knowledge work will expand from $1 billion to $50 billion in the next few years. 

Customer service "tasks are fairly narrow and easy to codify, which makes them good candidates for automation," says University of Washington computer scientist Pedro Domingos, author of "The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World."

In one of IPsoft's pilot programs, Amelia is being deployed with a large multimedia company that "may or may not" provide Internet services in New York. The company gets over 65,000 requests a month. After a six months, Amelia was able to handle 64% of requests successfully. The impact on speed was huge: the average time of a call dropped from 18.2 minutes to 4.5 minutes, and the average speed of answering a call dropped from 55 seconds to 2 seconds. 

amelia episodic memoryAmelia works through "machine learning," an artificial intelligence technique that Google chief Eric Schmidt says will be behind every meaningful tech IPO over the next five years. With machine learning, developers don't have to program every single task that an algorithm carries out. Instead, the algorithm can study a data set and make its own inferences about what the best decisions would be in a given situation.

With Amelia, companies can feed in the transcripts of their highest quality calls if they have a database, or Amelia can listen in on on-going calls. This allows Amelia to build up an "episodic memory" of conversations that she can reference in future conversations. 

That knowledge of language is paired with her knowledge of business processes. Companies will input a task — like checking for whether you can get home insurance for the kind of home you have — and Amelia can carry it out. 

ipsoft amelia business process

If Amelia doesn't know what you're talking about — in our demo, Case said that he lived in a cubicle — then the bot will bring in a person to complete the call. The same goes if she detects that you're angry. 

Case says that Amelia's sentiment analysis (or the way that the bot is able to read people's emotions by the words they use) is literally one of the bot's selling points: if it appears that customer satisfaction is going well, then Amelia will pitch the customer on a promotion or deal. 

He's also careful to note that Amelia is (and will be) supervised by managers. You don't want “Tay-like experience happening inside of your call center,” Case says, referencing the Microsoft chatbot that quickly went from bubbly teenager to racist troll thanks to Twitter users' dark impulses and an apparent lack of supervision. 

Like other companies in the automation space, Case says that Amelia will be a way to automate as much of these low-level tasks as possible — which lead to high turnover since they're so routine — so that employees can move onto more creative, strategic tasks. 

Nuance, one of IPsoft's competitors, told TI that 10 million people around the world work in call and care centers. In a real way, Amelia and her peers are coming after them. 

"Many [call center employees] will lose their jobs," Domingos, the University of Washington computer scientist, says. "But others will see their jobs transformed for the better, in the sense that the more routine parts of the job will be done by machine learning, and the human workers will be able to focus on the parts that really require a human." 

SEE ALSO: 14 surprising jobs that robots are doing

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