Somewhere up there, both science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick are chuckling upon reading that Robotic engineers, or 'Bots' are finally beginning to threaten the human order.
Those who may not be quite so tickled are companies in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) arena who may face extinction if the world of Bots takes over the world of process—stuff like back office accounting and finance to tech support voice calls—which has been their meat and potatoes so far. India has been the heavyweight champ in this area with the Philippines also asserting its dominance.
In the same year that audiences were confronted by supernatural evil in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) an entirely different kind of malevolence was presented to them in the chilling Clarke-Kubrick book-cum-film 2001: A Space Odyssesy. Here, HAL, the computer system on board a spaceship that has been sent to investigate a disturbance on one of the moon’s craters ends up becoming a terrifying force with a mind of its own and ultimately sabotages the mission.
Today, Amelia, a humanoid program designed by NewYork-based IPSoft promises to bring to reality some opf HAL's promise by assuming the more monotonous and mundane tasks that many of the humans in the BPO business undertake.
IPsoft's software platform—designed in 1998 by Chetan Dube, a former New York University mathematics professor who gave his baby the innocuous, oh-so-sweet-moniker, 'Amelia' —may not yet be a HAL. But experts say that she is already a killer in disguise, smart enough to already give the Indian US$70 billion export-oriented IT services cum BPO industry the serious willies.
What these companies will be undoubtedly petrified of is the ability of Amelia to spit back answers in a pleasant human voice in a fraction of the time that humans take today. The value proposition simply increases along with the complexity of the question, as human engineers can labour over one for hours, while Amelia's self-learning algorithm can apparently crack it in mere minutes.
IPsoft says that Amelia could function at one-fourth the billing rates for human engineers and can easily clone itself during peak hours to handle an uptick in traffic—a trick that the most innovative Human Resources departments in the world can't duplicate.
It’s not just the Indian BPO industry at risk. If Amelia has her way, the entire global $400-billion BPO industry is in serious danger of being replaced by a virtual engineer.
As Mint newspaper reports, in 1950, mathematician Alan Turing in his research paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence set forth a challenge for a machine or computer to demonstrate the ability to behave on par with humans. IPsoft's Dubey believes that with a software algorithm that efficiently mimics the human brain and is armed with the ability to have natural language conversations, that time has come. Just like the Operating System in the movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amelia’s knowledge grows from every chat that she has.
Not everyone, though, is smitten by Amelia's charms. Raman Roy, a pioneer of the BPO business in India, who worked at GE's captive BPO arm GECIS before founding BPO Spectramind that was sold to Wipro for US$175 million, doesn't think that computers can replace humans with anything other than essential functions.
"United Airlines is now largely automated, and their outsourcing increased after they put in the automation," says Roy. "As of today, machines can replace only the basic element—level one calls (dealing with simple questions like, 'What is my credit card balance?'). The moment you get a more sophisticated call, you'll find you need people to do that complicated interaction," Roy told Mint.
IPsoft says that people shouldn't look at Amelia with such paranoia anyway since the company plans to partner IT Services firms by offering its platform to them in some sort of partnership. "We want to pursue the 'Intel Inside' strategy, wherein large firms use our technologies," Dube says.
While that may be temporarily re-assuring to IT Services players, those who won't be feeling any sense of comfort are the millions of Indian college graduates who look for jobs, many of them in the BPO industry, as well as the hundreds and thousands of engineers who graduate every year and look forward to being employed by the IT industry.
With commoditization already taking place in their world, and skill levels woefully inadequate, Amelia is one girl who they may soon wish was never given a passport to enter their world.