Thomas Friedman: The robots still need us — for now

Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)STEPHEN CHERNIN

Fifteen years ago, I came to Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley, to do a documentary on outsourcing. One of our first stops was a company called 24/7 whose main business was answering customer service calls and selling products, like credit cards, for U.S. companies half a world away.

The beating heart of 24/7 back then was a vast floor of young phone operators, most with only high school diplomas, save for a small pool of techies who provided "help desk" advice. These young Indians spoke in the best American English, perfected in a class that we filmed, where everyone had to practice enunciating "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" — and make it sound as if they were from Kansas not Kolkata.

The operations floor was so noisy from hundreds of simultaneous phone conversations that 24/7 installed a white-noise machine to muffle the din.

Well, 24/7's founders — P.V. Kannan and Shanmugam Nagarajan — invited me back last week for an update. Their company is now called [24], and the only noise is from the tapping on keyboards, because every query — from customers of U.S. retailers, banks and media companies — is coming in by text messaging.

These text queries are usually answered first by a chatbot, or "virtual agent," powered by AI (artificial intelligence) and only get handed over to a person if the chatbot gets stuck and can't answer. The transformation of [24] from perfecting its accents to perfecting its insights illustrates in miniature how AI is transforming the whole work landscape.

Virtually all of the [24] human operators today have college degrees because they need to be able to text with good grammar in English and communicate with expertise and empathy when the chatbot runs out of answers. At the training class I sat in on last week, Peter Piper was gone. He was replaced by a competition among trainees over who could grasp first exactly when the chatbot — which [24] calls by the woman's name Aiva, for Artificially Intelligent Virtual Assistant — could no longer understand the "intent" of the customer and what that intent actually was.

It's at that critical point that the human agent not only has to step in and answer the question that Aiva couldn't but also has to "tag" the queries that stumped the bot and feed them to [24]'s data scientists, who then turn them into a new, deeper layer of AI that enables Aiva to answer this more complex query the next time.

As the bots grasp more of each customer's intent, the skilled humans are redeployed to more complex services and sales, and that, said Kannan, "turns into better sales and keeping customer satisfaction high."

Hollywood and Bollywood movies lately "have created a really bad impression that robots are going to take over," said Irene Clara, a trainer. "I don't think that fear is justified. I think we grow together. When you're teaching Aiva, you're getting skilled yourself and, without that, Aiva becomes incompetent."

So — for now — if you have critical thinking and empathy skills, Aiva is your friend. But I wonder what happened to all those Indian high school grads I met 15 years ago. Because if you don't have those skills — and just have a high school diploma or less, which applies to hundreds of millions of Indians — or you are doing routine tasks that will be easily roboticized, well, Aiva will not be your friend. So what will a country like India, with so much unskilled labor, do about this challenge? It's coming. But so is a possible savior.

While technology taketh it also giveth. India's high-speed mobile network, Jio, in just the past couple of years dramatically slashed the price of cellphone connectivity — creating a vast new tool kit to lift people from poverty.

In Mumbai, for example, I met with Sagar Defense Engineering, which is using technology to create a simple vessel, connected to satellites, that rag pickers, the poorest of the poor here, can be quickly trained on to target and collect the pools of waste that float atop so many Indian rivers and lakes — and get paid for it by the ton.

I also met with LeanAgri, using AI to create a simple cellphone-based app to make farming more successful. Some of the 3,000 farmers in LeanAgri's pilot have already seen tenfold increases in their incomes, the company said.

In Bangalore, I visited the EkStep Foundation, which has created a free, open-source digital infrastructure for making personal learning platforms. The Indian government leveraged it to create a national teachers platform. Now all that a student or teacher or parent has to do is point a cellphone at a paper QR code and it opens up a universe of interactive content — lesson plans and study guides — giving India a chance to improve numeracy and literacy at a whole new speed and scale.

So don't write the conclusion of this story yet. Thanks to AI, Peter Piper just might be able to pick a lot more than a peck of pickled peppers — so many more that not only the top of India's society will rise but also the bottom.