Robocalls from Real Robots


“mmm…buzzz…. click…. This is your friendly….buzzz…. automated calling device…click…hummmm… reminding you that….mmmm….buzzz…… there are only three days left to…. zzzzz…. take advantage of the Black Friday sales at…. mmmm…. buzzzz….. your…. zzzz… Collingwood…..insert box store name…. mmmm…buzzz…. click….thank you…”

Solenoid RobotsWell, maybe robotic telemarketers won’t sound like the solenoid robots on Roger Ramjet, but within the decade, most telemarketers will be machines, not humans. So when they interrupt your dinner to tell you you’ve won a free cruise, shouting at them and slamming down the phone won’t hurt their feelings at all. Mmmmm….buzz…. click…

Of course, a lot of this work is already automated, but according to a recent report called Fast Forward 2030: The Future of Work and the Workplace, half of today’s current workforce will be replaced by robots or some form of automation in 2025, telemarketers being at the top of the list for outplacement by machines. Repeat: half of the current workforce.

(Now, I have to admit I was puzzled as to why CBRE, an international real estate firm, would commission such a report. But regardless of the source, the report is fascinating, if perhaps a bit Pollyanna-ish in its conclusions about this upcoming revolution in the workplace…. especially when it quietly suggests on page nine another recession is coming… )*

Reporting on the report, the New Zealand Herald noted,

…experts now believe that almost 50 per cent of occupations existing today will be completely redundant by 2025 as artificial intelligence continues to transform businesses… A 2014 report by Pew Research found 52 per cent of experts in artificial and robotics were optimistic about the future and believed there would still be enough jobs in the next few decades… The optimists envisioned “a future in which robots and digital agents do not displace more jobs than they create,” according to Aaron Smith, the report’s co-author.

Rather to the contrary, Stephen Hawking is reported in a BBC story warning that,

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk warned that artificial intelligence potentially could be “more dangerous than nukes. Yes, yes, we all immediately think of Terminator’s Skynet AI and the robots.


But when it comes to telemarketers, I think I’d rather have Skynet. And Bell Canada’s customer “service” reps? Forget the robots and just replace them all with cement roadblocks… that’s what they are, after all… mmmm…. buzzzz…. click….

The NZ Herald also reports on two lists as determined by researchers at Oxford University: the top 20 jobs likely to be replaced by robots and the top 20 least likely to be replaced. They are funny lists; not in the ha-ha sense of the term but in the “that’s odd” sense.

Vulnerable jobs like telemarketer, bank teller, insurance underwriter, tax preparer and order clerk are already being replaced by machines, software or the internet. Nothing we aren’t already seeing. Think robocalls (aka robocon, robogate). Think Amazon. Think Turbotax.

But telemarketers and customer service reps? You’d think at least customer service reps need to be human so they can be flexible enough to handle a variety of situations, customers who may not be able to articulate all their issues, and express some simulacrum of empathy, however false it sounds.

Let me introduce you to Amelia:

Amelia speaks and reads 20 languages. She works day and night, and does not believe in a work-life balance. She will help you plan your business trip, and she understands your mood and will react around you accordingly. But Amelia is not the perfect employee – well, not a human one, anyway. She is an artificial intelligence (AI) machine that can understand, learn, and empathise like a human being.

The developer, Ipsoft, describes her:

The First Cognitive Agent Who Understands Like a Human
Amelia, our cognitive knowledge worker, interfaces on human terms. She is a virtual agent who understands what people ask – even what they feel – when they call for service.
Using the same instruction manuals as, for example, call center operators, Amelia can be deployed straight from the cloud in a fraction of the time. She learns as she works and provides high-quality responses consistently, every day of the year, in every language your customers speak.


Welcome to the future. Amelia or some similar program may soon replace a lot of jobs. No more pressing zero to get a human operator when you’re calling your phone company to untangle yet another billing screw-up instead of wading through the morass of menu choices, none of which are useful for your problem. Instead, you’ll get Amelia. And I’m willing to bet you won’t shout at her as much, with her soft, understanding voice….  mmm…. buzzzz… click…

(Another digression: as a techie geek, I am curiously a luddite about some of these jobs. I like to talk to bank tellers because I like the human connection. I avoid ATMs when I can because I like to say hello, good afternoon, share some chitchat about the weather. I moved from Toronto to this small town because I wanted to make those connections. I cherish the interaction with people and if my bank only had machines, I’d change branches or banks to one that still had people. I even prefer to talk to a real human insurance broker than make my choices online.)

But some of the vulnerable categories strike me as odd: watch repairer for example. Will we just buy a new one? Sure, if my aged-but-much-loved $29 Timex breaks, I will, mostly because no one repairs them. Just like DVD players or toasters. It’s a disposable society. But would you toss a Rolex for a new one? Or trust a machine to fix it? Not bloody likely.

Umpires, referees and sports officials? Okay, I’m not a sports guy and I know as much about refereeing as I do about watch repair, but from what little I’ve seen, insulting and screaming at umpires and referees is a key component in any sports game. I don’t think people will be content to shout at some little black box. Referees and umpires are like politicians: people need them to channel their anger.

(It’s not like we have to replace chess referees with machines; chess tournaments are already heavily analysed by software… and no one ever said, “That wasn’t a checkmate just then…”)

What are “timing device assemblers?” Are are those devices in bombs or military ordnance? if so, I think it’s like packing your own parachute. A human might be a better choice: they have a vested interest in doing it right. What will the AI say if it screws up? mmmm….buzzz…. click…. ooops…. ka-boom….

And library technicians? Come on… do you really think a robot can run a library front desk accept late returns, shelve books, answer questions, direct clients, help with a Kobo, book a room for a service club, process loans, figure out fines, accept or reject donations, deal with kids and cranky seniors, help set up wireless, organize computer use, and direct people to the right section or the ukulele club meeting without blowing a fuse? Library people are not simply book shelvers: they are in the customer service-and-satisfaction business. People come to libraries for the social interaction as much as for the learning, the entertainment, the reading, the books and the knowledge. Libraries may be the last bastion of humanity in the workplace of the future.

Most of the list of jobs unlikely to be replaced is basically anything that requires some sort of artistic, aesthetic, scientific, religious, or engineering brainpower. And as for the rest – chiropractor, orthodontist – would you trust you spine or your mouth to a machine? Spine adjustment necessary ….mmm… buzzz… click… spinal readjustment necessary… applying level five force… ooops…

But fashion designers? Okay I’m not a fashionista (my idea of winter fashion is lined jeans, sweatshirt, toque, puffy jacket, thermal socks and Sorel boots… kind of like an astronaut without the helmet… ) but what little I’ve seen in the media of the catwalk fashions – humans may not be designing this stuff. Aliens, maybe. Machines can’t possibly make it weirder. (Disclaimer: this is from a guy who thinks socks and sandals are perfectly fine…)

Automation and technology have, of course, always changed the workplace and caused eruptions in employment, ever since human history started. Tractors in the 19th century, for example, radicalized farmwork forever. When’s the last time you spoke to a typesetter?

I’m old enough to remember when buildings had elevator operators, when you could contact a telephone operator by simply tapping the little switches in the phone cradle (what do they call those things? hook switches?). I can remember switchboard operators, milkmen and breadmen who delivered door-to-door. Things change. But this revolution seems more like a tsunami that will scour some sectors of the workforce. All sorts of changes seem to be about to happen all at once.

According to a Bloomberg report, researchers looked at 702 American jobs and categorized them by home easily they could be replaced by some form of automation. The results?

Occupations that employed about 47 percent of Americans in 2010 scored high enough to rank in the risky category, meaning they could be possible to automate “perhaps over the next decade or two,” their analysis, released in September, showed.

The Daily Mail reported on the story by adding,

Customer work, process work and vast swatches of middle management will simply ‘disappear’, according to a new report by consulting firm CBRE and China-based Genesis.
‘Experts predict that 50 per cent of occupations today will no longer exist by 2025 as people will take up more creative professions,’ said Martin Chen, Chief Operating Officer of Genesis.

Lots of low-wage jobs are at risk: fast food and retail workers in particular. Thinks about that: in a community like ours that depends on the retail, hospitality and food sectors for employment, it could be devastating. It’s not like you can simply transition Wal-Mart or McDonalds’ workers over to being, say, a computer game designer or choreographer. You might be able to become a fashion designer, of course, but how many of them can we really support?

Business Insider noted:

Retail and fast food workers are also at high risk of being replaced by automated systems. Many stores and restaurants are now letting customers order and pay for food and other purchases via mobile devices, which is reducing the need for cashiers, waiters and salespeople.

automatPersonally, the reason I like to eat out is not simply having someone (or something?) cook for me: it’s the service, the interaction with staff, the community in a restaurant. The temporary sense of rank and importance. I never found the Horn & Hardart concept appealling. Where’s the humanity?

Imagine being an HR director today. How could you plan for tomorrow’s employees when you’re not sure if those jobs will even exist? How can you do succession planning? Why invest in benefits or training for workers who will be dumped for automation shortly? What about today’s students preparing to go into the workplace: how do you plan a career not even being sure what jobs will exist in a decade?

Why couldn’t we invent robots to replace the investment bankers, stock brokers and CEOs instead of the working class?


* BTW, no one in Canada was consulted for the report…

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top