Technology brings efficiency, but it can’t replace the desire for human contact

As news continues to come out about Google Duplex AI and it’s conversational AI capabilities, it has prompted speculation about what the implementation of voice assistants smart enough to sound human could mean for the future. What does Duplex mean for the future of things like phone-based customer service?

Currently, Google Duplex is still being tested as a consumer technology, and only for a limited number of use cases such as restaurant reservations, salon books, and holiday tours. Further, this testing hasn’t been opened to any enterprise clients, but it’s not too surprising that there are those who have concluded that Duplex is destined to kill the call center as we know it.

However, such predictions fail to consider popular consumer opinion about conversational AI smart enough to dupe humans. The human-sounding ‘uhms’ and ‘ahs’ of Duplex, as well as its ability to follow idioms and nonstandard expressions, were unnerving to common users and tech experts alike; tech bloggers have been calling Duplex things like “scary” and “terrifying”.

Further, it’s important to note that after public outcry in the wake of the release of the demo video, Google has amended the script so that Duplex will now clearly introduce itself as an AI – in response to widespread criticism over the ethical problems inherent in designing experiments to deceive the people they were contacting. That’s not to say that Duplex doesn’t represent exciting new possibilities. However, people’s feelings about Duplex are intense and deeply rooted, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect such customer sentiment to shift quickly.

Duplex puts a new face on an old problem

Duplex represents an exciting new jump in technological capability, but the truth is that it’s just the latest in a long line of technological innovations that have been predicted to be the death of the call center, as has been observed by several prominent customer service and CX influencers:

Email, IVR, live chat, social media, and the proliferation of messaging apps haven’t killed the call center – they’ve simply made it more complex, as evolving call centers upgrade their capabilities and engage customers across platforms with omnichannel customer support. The outcry over the deception inherent in the initial Duplex demos shows that the need for human-provided customer service isn’t going anywhere. Customers may respond positively to efficient automated options like chatbots for simple and routine issues, but for complex issues customers still want human connection and empathy.

Which is exactly why AAA has announced that it will be hiring work-from-home travel agents to expand it’s existing workforce of more than 3200 travel agents, explaining:

“The internet doesn’t call you back” – AAA’s expansion of human agents

Travel agents and agencies were among the hardest-hit by the 2008 recession, as cash-strapped consumers cut back on luxuries and vacations. It was assumed by many that the proliferation of online do-it-yourself options would eliminate the desire for travel agent assistance for good. However, the preponderance of travel-planning websites and online deals has resulted in a sort of analysis paralysis for the modern traveler.

Planning a vacation can be an anxiety-inducing experience, and there is demand for human travel agents who can help navigate the maze of review and bookings sites and lend a personal touch to what has become an impersonal experience. And because AAA is hiring these new agents to work from home, they will be able to expand their capacity to assist travelers looking for human-led interactions without significantly increasing costs.

All of this just goes to show that the increasing preference for communication over digital channels doesn’t change that for complex issues, human interaction remains key.

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About the Author: Anna Kreider