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Will AI replace the human element of the outsourcing industry?

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There was a time when the words artificial intelligence (AI) brought up images of robots and advanced computer programs that could outsmart humans. AI has not only arrived since then, it is busy reshaping technology as we know it. While the legal and ethical ramifications of AI have yet to be grasped and require a governing framework to mitigate the risks, it raises the question: Can AI be used as a force for good?

The good, the bad and the ugly of AI

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey makes this observation: “Technical infrastructure is central to everything. It will accelerate all good and bad trends. I’m convinced that it is for those very reasons that the human element becomes even more important. High tech without high touch does not work. And the more influential technology becomes, the more important the human factor which controls that technology becomes.

There is a time and place to put the magnifying glass on “the bad and the ugly” of AI. For this article, though, it’s only important to mention that, left unregulated, AI has the potential to become a destructive superintelligence. For instance, it can be “taught” to infiltrate secure systems, “steal” sensitive information, spread fake news more effectively, or “instructed” to interrupt, hinder or hamstring established processes. It can be every bit as nefarious as those who operate it.

With the bad out of the way, let’s consider the ways in which AI and machine learning (ML) have influenced or improved the more prominent facets of most retail platforms.

AI in the supply chain

Many of the repetitive or analytical functions of supply chain management have involved the help of AI, ML and even blockchains to facilitate or expedite the process. Supply chains have always been riddled with inter- or intra-company transactions that oftentimes create delays along the chain, from raw material, product development, down to the logistical aspects of delivery.

Real-time cloud-based AI forecasting tools are used to increase on-demand accuracy and minimize temporarily-out-of-stock fears. This is especially valuable during seasonal peaks where predictive AI programs can hypothesize stock quantities based on previous years’ sales data. These AI-based programs form part of a fully automated system. Once introduced to the supply chain it can perform multiple problem solving tasks and initiate a smart industry manufacturing process run by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Consider how beneficial it would be for hospitals to add real-time data analysis to their drug supply chain management. Inventory analysis, ordering and transportation of critical drugs could all become an automated process for smart systems to do, while doctors and nursing staff dedicate themselves to saving lives.

AI in customer service

We’ve all encountered the little chatbot that pops up in the far right corner, prompting shoppers or users to reach out if there are any concerns about their order or their booking. The friendly avatar and inviting UX copy urges customers to input their complaints in a text box and to hit send.

These automated AI chatbots are often the frontline warriors tasked with gathering information and getting to the root of customer woes before punting the query to a physical representative. By the time it gets to a consultant, they are equipped with sufficient information to assist the customer and to resolve their problem. 

AI is also used to analyze real-time user activity and consumer data. This offers insight into customer behavior, their preferences and their habits, which contributes immensely to the overall customer experience. Add to this the way that AI can better facilitate or streamline the online checkout purchasing process, and AI becomes the sought-after secret sauce that retailers are looking for during their seasonal ramp-ups. 

In recent news, the use of AI in the CX industry caught a headwind when news broke of an insanely expensive AI voice-altering app specifically designed to make foreign-speaking CX personnel sound more American. It is presumed that outsourcing companies using this tech will include a minute disclaimer as an afterthought, bottom left, asterisked, denoting their hopes that this will create opportunities abroad. Not only does this pretense belie their true predilections, but it could ultimately dehumanize the personal customer experience and hamper the recent strides towards workplace inclusivity.

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AI in cybersecurity

Cyber villainy is a reality. The information and communication technology sector is prone to cyber attacks, especially where it involves personal or financial information. By means of ransomware, criminals are able to hack, extract, and hold ransom the most sensitive data for the highest bidder. A recent example of this, is the four terabytes of breached client data stolen from TransUnion South Africa, the country’s largest credit information bureau. The group of Brazilian hackers responsible for the breach entered into a stand-off with authorities, demanding a stiff $15 million ransom to return the information.

Many businesses have resorted to employing ethical (white hat) hackers to probe their ICT infrastructure for weaknesses, stress-testing their online processes and hacker-proofing their back-end. With the introduction of artificial intelligence, this ethical hacking process can be partially automated, thereby enabling your security systems to constantly survey your operation for risk.

In the e-commerce industry, technology is at the center of all the action, comprising billions of time-varying signals and lines of code that must be analyzed for irregularities or flaws. This is humanly impossible. AI and ML can be “taught” to analyze all the data or even “learn” from previous breaches, then detect-and-respond when it encounters similar attempts to breach sensitive user information.

AI in job creation

Sudden technological advances are often associated with job losses. There are extreme examples where two or three machines replace the traditional factory floor, thereby increasing productivity, halving the required operating space and, sadly, cutting the workforce by nearly 80%. But technology is not always the great obliterator of jobs. When it closes a door, it usually opens a window somewhere else.

Not too long ago, it was feared that the digitization of the finance sector, along with the introduction of cryptocurrencies, would lead to mass layoffs in banks. The reasoning was that people prefer online or app-based banking solutions rather than queueing at the local branch. And their fears were well-founded. Year-on-year we continue to see record closures of physical banks.

If it’s not the case already, it is clear that AI will in the immediate future become integrated with blockchain technology, which is in some cases already underpinned by intelligent machine learning programmes. As the evolution of FinTech spurred on the rapid growth and adoption of blockchain technology, it perchance created countless remote-based work opportunities for developers and programmers.

From 2015 to 2019 the number of cryptocurrency jobs per million grew nearly 1,500%. The widespread inclusion of cryptocurrencies, as well as the plethora of opportunities it represented, has caused the crypto job market to grow exponentially since then.

Even in the current throes of bear market challenges, blockchain employment is thriving. According to studies done by Indeed, AngelList, Glasdoor and LinkedIn, blockchain job listings are up nearly 400%, while the industry accounts for nearly 0.13% of the entire job market. Including the vast number of freelancers, this means that millions of jobs have already been enhanced. Ironically, banks and financial institutions are leading the charge in this employment drive.

Artificial Intelligence software has had, and will continue to have, a similar result. As a super technology, this is still an unexplored space. The amount of jobs being created on a daily basis (programmers, tech experts, software engineers, etc.), is incalculable, and increasing exponentially. In 2020, at the height of pandemic lockdowns, a World Economic Forum report indicated that AI would eliminate nearly 85 million jobs by 2025. However, it would also create 97 million new jobs in the process. That is a terrifying consequence of an alarming growth estimate.

Using AI for good

AI/ML have enabled us to extract and analyze vast amounts of data without breaking a sweat. Not only is it adaptable, but it operates at a speed that is impossible to match, which gives those who apply it properly, the competitive edge.

AI is practically a necessity in the e-commerce and retail industries, where business process outsourcing (BPO) is also an integral part of operations. By automating certain processes and outsourcing others, the primary team can focus their energy on their core business. This synergy between AI and outsourcing can significantly reduce business costs, improve the CX experience, and tighten up a company’s supply chain.

The good seemingly outweighs the bad. In a recent discussion by AI For Good, keynote speaker Dr Nashlie Sephus, principal Tech Evangelist at Amazon Web Services AI, pointed out that AI/ML could be used maliciously and even unintentionally amplify personal or social biases. She suggests that a business should always ask one question before rolling out a new AI/ML algorithm: Is this an ethical solution to the problem?

“With quantum computing and Web 3.0, there is already so much AI in our phones,” says Sephus. “Government regulation is coming. It is inevitable. The challenge right now is making responsible AI available and affordable for startups.”

As an impact-driven company we have already ensured our mandate of outsourcing ethically by becoming B-Corp and SOC2 certified. In order to assist our clients who rely on smart technology in their business operations, we make every effort to stay on top of industry developments and communication from review boards or supranational bodies that regulate the use of AI.

James Fouche is a Content Writer at Boldr, an author and a columnist. He is passionate about sharing his love of reading and writing with others.

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