Self-learning Humanoid Amelia poses existential threat to BPOs

Self-learning Humanoid Amelia poses existential threat to BPOs

Summary: IPsoft's self-learning computer software algorithm Amelia could be ruinous for the Business Process Outsourcing industry but the company says that it wants to partner with them instead

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The world of self-learning Bots has finally arrived with IPsoft's Amelia

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.

amelia dubey
IPsoft's Dube

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.

amelia one

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.

Topics: Outsourcing, India, IT Employment

Rajiv Rao

About Rajiv Rao

Rajiv is a journalist and filmmaker based out of New Delhi who is interested in how new technologies, innovation, and disruptive business forces are shaking things up in India.

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20 comments
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  • So only India is affected by this, not the rest of the world too?

    Why be India-centric?
    HypnoToad72
    • oh the irony. ..

      How ironic that your question was first "answered" by a MLM spambot. (Hopefully the message will soon be deleted, but folks here are all to familiar with the sorts of posts I'm taking about).
      dsf3g
    • yes....

      my neighbor's step-sister brought home $20864 a week ago. she has been making cash on the internet and bought a $519900 home. All she did was get lucky and apply the advice exposed on this link

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      joniluis99
  • Stealing jobs

    Suddenly becomes a problem only when the job you stole is threatened in turn.
    dilettante
  • millions of Indian college graduates who look for jobs?

    I'm surprised that any college grad anywhere would be looking forward to such an entry level job. Maybe I'm hopelessly out of touch but I graduated from High School, went into the military where I learned electronics which eventually lead me to the IT industry where I'm fortunate enough to make six figures with no college and no school loan to pay off. I often wish I had not skipped college, but if I had the sheepskin, I would have much higher expectations than being call center support.
    JoeFoerster
    • Don't scorn them

      Change in the world is inevitable. Business has always exploited price differentials for labor and cost of goods to compete. It is the hallmark of capitalism. It is a double-edged sword. No one likes getting laid off for whatever reason. Its happened to me before just as it has to many others.

      Americans who feel they've been displaced in the high tech industry know that they have some level of responsibility. What you knew before may not be so valuable now. It is each person's responsibility to retrain to remain employable. Claiming Victim Status here is simply giving up and blaming others. It is pointless and disempowering.

      Let's hope that corruption and nepotism in India finally begins to get under control. Then, bright minds from that country can earn a living there without having emigrate to the West to fulfill their dreams.
      Compute_This
    • @JoeForester

      Colleges in India (and elsewhere) are a generic term that span the spectrum from degree-not-worth-the-paper-it-was-printed-on to world class. The problem in India is that for every job you get 1000 applications. College degrees are used as a filter mechanism to manage the number of people entering the workforce. The people from the best colleges get hired by McKinsey, Google and Intel, the second tier go into the high paying Indian companies and ....you get the drift. BPO has been the source of income for bored college going urban kids or the college educated, small town kids.
      waasoo
  • Amelia

    I've heard before. Can you say "Hype."
    randmart
  • I didn't understand your response, can you repeat it? Okay... got it.

    It's fun to imagine responsive software that can match the human intellect, but its a fantasy. The fact is, machines are not self-aware and will never be so; at best, they closely mimic what we call "intelligence".

    Sure, machines can identify words and interpret sentence structure; but they simply do not possess the innate ability to "understand". They react to environmental variables as they are told to... even when they are programmed to be flexible, they react in a largely predictable manner.

    Human beings are able to understand one another because we share similar emotions. We have the ability to sense when a person is angry or happy, and we tailor our dealings with that individuals accordingly. Machines simply do not have this capacity. While You could certainly "teach" a machine to read angry voice-pattern or language; you could never program it to "understand" a person's anger.

    The subtleties of human-interaction are far greater and more complex than most people could possibly imagine.
    ribzilla
    • don't agree

      There is no magic in human neural networks, and much waste compared to a more robust mathematic model.
      it won't be long before many middle class jobs like doctors will be replaced.
      would you prefer a more accurate diagnosis and treatment for your child, or a human doctor?
      soon, people will be choosing the machine.
      soon, driverless cars will replace human skills. (there are already driverless trains).
      that's just the way it is.
      we will need to evolve a new role / way of living for the displaced middle class in society.
      stevey_d
  • Not the Moon. Jupiter or Saturn. Amelia knows that!

    In the book, HAL was on the journey to Saturn. In the movie, the screenplay changed that to Jupiter. Either way, it wasn't the Moon!
    GBO Possum
  • And does anyone have an answer to the question?

    And does anyone have an answer to the question of what to do with the displaced people? That they can be retrained is dumb. For what? Yes, Toto, you can replace a human with a machine. Better be careful though doing it. The thing is that while it is a radical change, it is only one of many that humans are going to have to figure out how to deal with... Though I admit automation was the toughest one for me to figure out. I just put Transition To A New Human Ecology on Amazon if you want the first part of the answer.
    a1swdeveloper
    • Too many people not enough jobs

      a1swdeveloper Everything you say is true. After being laid off four years ago at age 61 I have come to realize that this recession is quite different from previous ones. Yes, jobs have been outsourced, but many more have been lost to automation, computerization and efficiency gains. A tipping point has been reached where there are far more people than there are jobs to fill. The situation will only get much worse in the future. A solution will have to be found. Will we go to job sharing where everyone works 20 hours a week and is somehow paid for forty? Government supplements to wages like parts of Europe? Will we enter an age of increased leisure time? Or will it be an age with a permanently unemployed section of society left to fend for themselves. The conservatives and the liberals will have very different ways to handle the excess workforce.
      Johnkaye
      • exactly

        Using drones to whack the unemployed or underemployed poor would be the outcome in a sci-fi novel.
        the rich are becoming even richer, the middle class will cease to exist.
        there is no point in arguing against the technological trend, we need to discuss how to live in the aftermath.
        stevey_d
  • Guaranteed Income

    As work goes away due to ever increasing automation, the only way to keep the economy going is to give everyone a guaranteed income. Otherwise, things will just come to a grinding halt. Companies rely on having a large population of workers who are getting paid so that they can purchase the goods the companies are producing. But do away with the workers, and there will not be enough consumers to purchase the goods to keep the companies alive. The economy only works if money keeps circulating. Using automation and robots to do all the labor won't work as the money doesn't get into the hands of the consumers. The money stops circulating.
    J-Hermes
  • Interesting stuff

    Continuing with the point made by "J-Hermes" above, I would say that regardless of the merits (or otherwise) of this software and keeping aside the specific cases of countries heavily involved in the BPO sector (India, Philippines, among others), this article (or, more accurately, post) points to a much larger problem that is looming in front of us. What will be the nature of employment in the future? If we assume that self-learning algorithms will, in the future, be much better than what we have today, and if heavy industrial production units will increasingly become roboticized, and manufacturing, for the most part, is 3-D printer driven, where do the employment opportunities lie? Maybe small-plot agriculture? What else? Just think about it...!
    crystalsoldier
    • agreed

      At the moment extreme wealth is concentrating at the top, and the middle class will become poor unemployed or poor underemployed. We need to evolve a new society in the light of this. Note a knowledge system will ultimately be a better leader and better entrepreneur than humans, so perhaps it will be all humans at the bottom of the pile, with no hope of changing your fortune.
      stevey_d
  • SELF-LEARNING HUMANOID

    You ruined your article at the end by not being able to spell her name! Next time, Have Amelia proof read it !
    DRDRJAY1
    • Re: Misspelt Amelia

      Ha, yes, thanks. Contacting her now to see if she's available as a personal copy editor
      Rajiv Rao
  • gh

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    katepery