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JOHANNESBURG – For over a decade, experts have predicted the rise of artificially intelligent (AI) machines with Gartner forecasting in 2011 that 85 percent of future customer engagement would be fielded without humans by 2020.

When Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, the HAL9000 computer had an intelligent conversation with humans and this seemed like pure science fiction.

It has taken the intervening 50 years to feel like it's now closer to becoming reality. We are led to believe it is inevitable that machines will replace human labour, threatening millions of jobs. In my own industry of customer experience, apparently the chatbot will replace the customer service adviser.

Well, not quite yet. In fact, there is a counter-view that is a lot more positive for workers in the future.

Machines are the dream employees of the future. Never late because of train delays nor absent because of duvet days. Always productive, reliable and efficient. In fact, you already know some of them by name. Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant.

Statistics suggest 7percent of us already talk to them every day. Not only do we address them by their name, but we thank them for the information that they provide. In some instances, as proven by Google’s recent presentation of Duplex - an AI Assistant, some of us might not even realise we are talking to bots.

Machines have already won the IQ battle. Watson beating man at chess is one thing. But Watson can't cry. And this matters in the economy of tomorrow. How to empathise and truly “connect” with your customer or patient is beyond their limits. Why? Because people buy into people. Can a bot understand that your newborn is crying in the background as you speak to customer service? Can they empathise? No.

Emotional intelligence and empathy are critical skills in customer service. In fact, they are invaluable in all human interactions whether in the public or private sector.

Automation is helpful for retrieving basic knowledge for customers. “What time does the gym open?” “Is this dress in stock?” Algorithms will pull the correct answer down for customers far faster than humans.

At Webhelp we are trialling how best AI and humans can work together in customer service for brands.

For example, we have built Chatbots for clients in the Utilities and Telco sectors that can respond to frequently asked customer questions and manage simple processes such as activating a new SIM card and entering a meter reading via Facebook’s Messenger platform. If the customer requires support that Chatbot is unable to deal with, then it proactively passes the customer to a human adviser within the same Messenger conversation.

People buy into and connect to people. It’s still the first law of society. In the world of brands, experiences are everything today. Which chief executive is going to entrust the brand experience solely to robots? They do functionality well, but not feelings. Customer service-led brands hire candidates not only relying on IQ, but more importantly EQ.

I believe the real game-changer is deep learning. We believe this represents the area of greatest untapped potential. Brands will be soon be able to build AI systems that identify customers with high purchase potential by rapidly analysing characteristics such as mood, history and attitudinal preferences.

The world of tomorrow may be “robot-assisted”, but people will remain at the centre of the conversation because the brain is not enough, it also needs a heart. Machines can think. Fast. But they can't love like we do.

Simon Garabette is the chief operating officer of Webhelp South Africa.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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