Rise of the machines: When bots take over the workplace
It’s the Year of the Bots. They are efficient, can handle scale and work tirelessly without a lunch break.
If tourists start booking Shimla holidays to enjoy the snow and traffic outstrips the number of rooms, the duo sends alerts to hotel chains in the region to increase online inventory. They forecast demand, answer customer queries and can even update on flight delays.
The duo has been at the travel portal’s headquarters in Cyber City, Gurgaon, for just a year but has already moved on to solving more difficult tasks such as managing loyalty programmes.
Whether cancellations or refunds from 12,000-15,000 customer interactions every day, about 60% are resolved by the duo and some of their other techsavvy mates. And after all that, they take time out to share the workload of senior colleagues.
Superhuman, you would say. We wholeheartedly agree. For Myra and Gia are not flesh and blood white-collar executives. They are bots.
It’s the Year of the Bots. They are efficient, can handle scale, accuracy and, most importantly, work tirelessly without a lunch break.
Inspired by SoftBank-backed Ping An Good Doctor of China, insurance aggregator PolicyBazaar.com started a healthcare venture, docprime.com, with an investment of around $50 million in April. It would help users book doctor and lab appointments. Chief executive Ashish Gupta says it couldn’t have started without bots!
At Ping An Good Doctor, bots enable 700,000 consultancies, with 1,000 bots working alongside human agents. “Such scale is possible only with bots.” adds Gupta, who is also the chief technology officer of PolicyBazaar. Without them, the 10-year old insurance aggregator would have needed three to five times more people to do tasks such as selling motor or health insurance. About half the motor covers are sold by bots, a number Gupta expects will increase to 75% in the next couple of years.
Thousands of bots will work alongside humans to book appointments with doctors, schedule meetings, deliver customer support, help access records, assist in work and so on. EY predicts a five-fold increase in their numbers at the workplace in the next year.
The largest temp staffing company in India, TeamLease Services, has calculated that 0.1% of industrial jobs have been lost to robots, while 37% of the jobs that currently exist will change in some way. That change is coming about faster now, driven by bots or software applications that perform automated tasks such as searching online, paying bills, answering queries, fixing an appointment with a doctor or a plumber, helping in research, driving marketing campaigns, filing tax returns or checking for errors in documents without human intervention.
Bots and robots both do the same thing. But bots are software and robots are mechanical. Yet both excel at repetitive tasks – ones we call the daily grind, or tedious chores.
Robots have mechanised manufacturing somewhat in the last few years but in their new avatar, bots are altering services companies. A car manufacturer such as Ford could be using robots on the factory floors to make cars just like they do at their Gujarat export plant, but in the corporate offices, bots can be devising multi-platform campaigns to sell those sedans or SUVs.
The scope is wider. That is why L&T is using them for payable and contract management; Airtel for billing and customer services; TataSky for finance and supply chain functions. Bajaj Electricals has Paddy taking employee complaints and booking technician visits and EY has deployed 1,500 bots for clients across functions — finance, HR, IT or any activity that has a set procedure (rule-based processing). At HDFC Bank, job applications from humans are screened by bots and the first videoconferenced interview is also with one.
Wherever there is a highly templatised, predictable, non-cognitive assignment, bots are taking over. At the same time, they are constantly upgrading. Like HDFC Bank’s Eva is helping users decide between recurring or fixed deposits. In some financial services firms, bots are advisors, cherry-picking bespoke investment and savings products for clients after mapping their age, risk profile, time horizon and several other parameters.
Depending on the complexity, a single bot can cost from Rs 40 lakh to Rs 1.5 crore to develop.
“Earlier there were no alternatives but to throw bodies at mundane jobs. Now, bots are taking over while humans move to better quality, higherthinking jobs,” says Rituparna Chakraborty, co-founder, TeamLease.
Bengaluru-based tech services provider Mindtree has gone a step further to make it official. It reported the addition of 426 bots to its workforce as of June 30 and 484 in its second quarter results. The mid-tier firm started declaring quarterly bot numbers along with human employees added from early this year. “We wanted to signal to the world that our industry is changing,” says Rostow Ravanan, chief executive, Mindtree. “Bots are a rising trend.”
Transformers: The Next Gen
Bots or software programs for specific tasks have been around for many years, with 40% of customer queries being the FAQ type — ideal for bot-level intelligence. Some like Vaibhav Gawde, head, solutions consulting, Oracle India, have seen at least three generations at play.
The first gen are single skill, single task bots. The second generation, in use at present, can handle multiple tasks such as employee self-service, IT help desk or customer queries. The third gen will be powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and use self-learning to improve their own knowledge to help human users.
Similarly, activity bots that Mindtree has built can decide who the best person (human) is to do a job. As machines do more tasks, humans can perhaps utilise free time to upskill themselves, argues Ravanan.
“Bots will save human workers four hours in an eight-hour shift. By 2022, one-third of all customer services will be done by bots,” feels Arup Roy, vice-president, research at Gartner, a tech advisory firm. Early evolvers are finding ways to blend human and intelligent bot workers that complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. “We are elevating these ‘systems that do’ bots with ‘think and learn’ bots to drive intelligent automation,” says Sumithra Gomatam, president, digital operations, Cognizant.
At lingerie brand Clovia, customer interactions are handled by bots. Pankaj Vermani, founder and chief executive, says, “The next phase of bots will see customers being guided on product selection and size discovery assistance.”
A large ecommerce company is using bots to pay suppliers. “If you are doing 10 million transactions daily, accuracy is important and so is time and compliance. This is where bots score,” says Milan Sheth, lead, intelligent automation, EY India. “We are trying to create bots to pick out anomalies in non-disclosure agreements and memoranda of understanding. The progression is: use bots to assist, then assign them tasks and eventually leave it all for bots to do,” predicts Nitin Chugh, country head, digital banking, HDFC Bank.
I Robot: Where’s My Paycheque?
There can be much fiery debate over bots snatching away humans’ jobs. But while each bot is as good as, or better, than 2.5 human workers, it needs at least 5-7 people to develop, deploy and maintain it. Ergo, at least coders can rest easy.
But in a billion-plus country where only 10-12% of the 480 million workers are in the organised sector, intelligent automation — though inevitable — is bound to face backlash. In election season, farm distress and youth unemployment is already political ammunition.
Yogendra Yadav, national president, Swaraj India, feels it’s a “fundamental error in believing there’s something called advanced technology.” The US and Europe have deficient labour and excess capital, he argues, making bots relevant there. “In India, the situation is the opposite. Advanced, cutting edge technology should create jobs with least amount of capital.”
Chakraborty of TeamLease has a counterargument. “Any innovation comes with side effects. That’s no argument against innovation. Use of bots is mankind’s statement to move to higher order jobs,” she says.
For technology apologists, bots crumble if there are multiple intents and can only be designed, created, developed and even maintained by humans. “Historically, market expansion and job creation are because of use of technology. I can empathise with people’s fears,” says Ravanan. However, “getting humans and intelligent bots to collaborate and feed off each other’s insights will be key to evolution,” feels Gomatam.
As per EY estimates, 40% of any job component is digital and increasing. “If the economy doesn’t grow, even bots will be unemployed. If the economy expands, as is expected, there will be jobs for both humans and bots,” argues Sheth. Of the 15 names mentioned in this story, three are of bots. It’s possible that a story written five years from now will be based mostly on conversations with chatbots. In some global newsrooms, baby steps have already been carried out.
There is, however, a dark side. Bots are being employed to spread misinformation or propaganda in political and corporate warfare. Canny algorithms invade our space with targeted messaging. In today’s Orwellian world, everything — from personal photographs to financial records — are vulnerable to the prying eyes of bots.
Facing unprecedented global backlash, Facebook and Twitter have purged millions of bots who have been spamming humans while promoting hate, misogyny, terror, sexual abuse and pornography or just plain falsehoods.
“We now stop more than one million accounts per day at the time of upload,” points out Monika Bickert, vice-president, product policy and counter-terrorism, Facebook. About 1.3 billion fake accounts have been brought down in May-October.
Of course, it is unlikely that the need for humans —to write a story, run factories or companies and work at the bank — will disappear. Still, dystopian though it may seem, the post of a bot manager who has been trained by bot teachers and hired by bots may be a coveted job sooner than you think.