Preparing for AI
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - May 18, 2018 - 12:00am

SAN FRANCISCO — Visits to the Bay Area always make me wonder what’s next in technology’s disruptive products and services. Here’s the latest:

Google recently launched Google Assistant. Unlike Alexa or Google Home, this new one is able to understand the nuances of conversation.

 From the demonstration of Google Assistant I saw, it is actually able to carry out a conversation required to set up an appointment with a hairdresser. Nothing robotic about it. Google Assistant is able to make alternative decisions based on what it learns about available appointment time slots.

A lot of secretaries are going to lose their jobs to Google Assistant. Not only them… but the voice part of our BPO industry are in definite trouble. This technology will improve in time and be able to handle more complicated marketing and customer service calls.

Google Assistant is, of course, another example of Artificial Intelligence in action. It reminds me of Apple’s Siri. My grandson in Anaheim once had Siri help him with his math homework. I wonder if he can discuss a book report assignment with Google Assistant.

AI is work that progresses fast. Self driving cars sound futuristic. But I am certain that cities will be planned or reconfigured to allow this technology. I hope the New Clark City will be designed to make it immediately ready to take in such technologies that now sound like science fiction.

I recall that when I first brought up the threat of AI to our BPO industry, there were those who said I was being alarmist. They were so busy recruiting call center agents and servicing clients they had little time to think about making their business future proof.

Now, they have changed their tune. In a long talk I had with Rey Untal, the BPO association’s president, he was open about the threat of AI to the industry’s future. But he reassured me that they are making sure they will not be wiped out by AI.

Sure, Mr Untal said, the lower end of their industry, those that deal with voice or call centers are in trouble. Just as technology wiped out medical transcription, so will technology make call centers, as we know it, a thing of the past.

The challenge, Mr Untal said, is getting enough trained people to work on the higher end of the industry. The personnel requirements of the future will be more demanding.

For background, Mr Untal’s Information Technology and Business Process Management (IT-BPM) industry is one of the two legs of the Philippine economy. It generates over $23 billion in revenues and provide 1.145 million direct jobs and 3.5 million indirect jobs for Filipinos.

The industry proudly points out that they have positively affected the expansion of other industries. They claim to have contributed additional revenue of P124.5 billion to the food industry, P75.5 billion to the banking industry, P66.6 billion to the real estate industry, P57.3 billion to the hotel and hospitality industry, and P48.5 billion to the transportation industry in 2016.

That’s a credible claim. Any building hosting a BPO operation has fast food outlets in the ground floor. Indeed, the local property industry will be nowhere as flourishing without the call centers and other BPO operations.

Our unemployment problem would have been unbearably horrible if we didn’t have the BPO industry. The industry accounts for 275,000 jobs in 21 provinces and growing. The industry enabled the proliferation of growth centers in regions outside NCR.

How well the BPO industry manages the challenges it faces, notably AI, will determine its ability to grow their work force. They are thinking of growing to 1.8 million jobs, generating over $39 billion in revenues, employing over 500,000 Filipinos in the countryside, and supporting the growth of SMEs and the startup ecosystem.

They are addressing the AI threat by re-focusing to higher value services. Even now, the industry claims an ability to pivot. They have been adding high-value services and solutions such as legal research and analysis, insurance support, data analytics, game development, social media, mobile, animation, cloud computing, and more.

The IT-BPM Roadmap 2022 sees low skill jobs accounting for only 27 percent of the IT-BPM careers, while mid-skill and high-skill jobs will take 46 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

They explained to me that AI and intelligent automation are part of Roadmap 2022. The industry believes AI will create new careers and open more opportunities to offer higher value services as our workforce handles more complex tasks.

But I am not so sure. Some things must happen as early as now or we will be left behind. Having a well trained workforce is top priority. There is “a critical need to invest more heavily in education and upskilling to meet the demand of the technologies on the horizon.”

The industry has identified the careers of the future that may include engineering, data sciences, and user experience/interface design. There are necessary shifts in curriculum to meet the demands of the industry.

Mr. Untal said they are working closely with the academe and the government to prepare the workforce and talent pool. They are also working with the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) to address the talent and the job-skill gap.

The industry launched its Service Management Program (SMP) to meet these needs. Under SMP, the industry has set aside funds to, among others, train about a thousand faculty who have completed either the Basic English Skills Training (BEST) or the Advanced English Proficiency Training (AdEPT and the Master Teachers’ Training Program (SMP-MTTP) to strengthen overall teaching effectiveness.

Hopefully the proactive programs of our BPO industry will enable them to not just keep jobs, but also expand their job creating ability even in the face of the AI challenge. We cannot afford to lose this industry, one of two legs of our economy, given that the other leg, OFWs is also under threat.

The BPO industry certainly deserves all the help our government can give. We can start by being kind to them when TRAIN 2 is finalized.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco.

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