FE Editorial : No longer science fiction

Written by The Financial Express | Updated: Jan 23 2013, 07:35am hrs
When business process outsourcing first took off, with call centres springing up in India and Thailand, one of the major drawbacks of the model was that American customers would get put off by the non-American accent at the other end of the call. This problem was soon addressed through accent training classes for BPO employees. Soon, however, advancements in technology could make it so a customer won't be able to tell whether the voice on the other end is even human. IPsoft, an IT infrastructure management company, has developed a humanoid computer program that is intelligent enough to pose a serious challenge to the BPO industry in countries like India, where this sector has been contributing substantially to GDP growth. While IMB's Watson computer relies on a huge trove of trivia and Apple's phone assistant Siri is dependent on its connection to the internet, IPsoft's Eliza is a cognitive machineit can learn from past experience and react to new information instantaneously. At the moment, IPsoft is restricting Eliza's use to managing hardware and software glitchesher immense computational power allows her to solve complicated technical issues in seconds, whereas human engineers would take around 10 minutes just to identify the problem. Eliza can also clone herself, providing herself with a team of advanced computers, as opposed to a team of human engineers. This, in itself, has huge implications for the employability of IT professionals in companies that rely heavily on their digital infrastructureEliza reportedly solves problems at less that one-fourth the billing rates of IT engineers in the US. But the real impact of programs like Eliza will come with their adoption in the larger services industry.

Eliza's ability to clone herself immediately does away with BPO companies' need to constantly hire droves of employees to man their phones. And the fact that Eliza already knows nine of the major languages, doesn't get fatigued, angry or frustrated by customers, and can work all day without a break, only adds to the appeal of a computer handling these services. Of course, if such computers are adopted, then employment in the BPO industry will fall precipitously, something India needs to be prepared for. Another fallout will be that, with the need for low-cost labour no longer there, the entire call centre industry could shift back to the US. IPsoft is already running a pilot program where Eliza is handling credit card and loan processing activities for a large bank, and the company's founder Chetan Dube sees a future not so far away where programs like Eliza can take over the mundane diagnostic tasks of doctors, leaving the human professionals to creative work like discovering new cures and new medicines. Mundane tasks exist in almost every industry, and soon a computer could be doing them. Science fiction is swiftly becoming science fact, but what that says for humanity's use is a question that will linger.