The Mercury News
AI (artificial intelligence) still needs HI (human intelligence)
BANGALORE, INDIA >> 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 then was a vast floor of young phone operators, most with only high school diplomas. These young Indians spoke the best American English; everyone practiced enunciating “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” — to make it sound as if they were from Kansas not Kolkata.
Well, 24/7’s founders — P.V. Kannan and Shanmugam Nagarajan — invited me back recently for an update. Their company is now called 7.ai, and their shop floor is quiet. The only noise is from the tapping on keyboards, because every query — from customers of U.S. retailers, banks and media companies — comes in by text messaging.
These text queries are answered first by a chatbot, or “virtual agent,” powered by AI (artificial intelligence) and only get handed over to a person using HI (human intelligence) if the chatbot gets stuck and can’t answer. The transformation of 7.ai from perfecting its accents to perfecting its insights illustrates in miniature how AI is transforming the whole work landscape.
The U.S. and Indian middle classes were built on high-wage, middle-skilled jobs. In an AIdriven world, such jobs are being replaced with mostly highskilled, high-wage jobs and lowskilled, low-wage jobs, and few in between.
Virtually all of the 7.ai human operators today have college degrees; they need good English grammar, to communicate with expertise and empathy when the chatbot — which 7.ai calls by the woman’s name Aiva, for Artificially Intelligent Virtual Assistant — runs out of answers.
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, Aiva the robotic fruit picker, Aiva the file clerk or Aiva the trucker won’t be your friend.
While technology taketh it also giveth. India’s newest highspeed mobile network, Jio, in just the past couple of years dramatically slashed the price of cellphone connectivity. This has taken smartphone diffusion much deeper into Indian society than ever before, connecting those making only a few dollars a day to the mobile network and creating a vast new tool kit to lift them from poverty.
In Bangalore, I visited the EkStep Foundation. It was started by Nandan Nilekani, a co-founder of Infosys; his wife, Rohini; and social entrepreneur Shankar Maruwada. EkStep (“One Step” in Hindi) argued that if India’s current youth bubble gets left behind by globalization and technology, India’s future will be tied to a giant ball and chain for the rest of the century.
EkStep has created a free, open-source digital infrastructure called Sunbird for making personal learning platforms.
Now, a student or teacher or parent can point a cellphone at a QR code and it opens up a universe of interactive content — lesson plans for teachers and study guides for students and parents — 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. Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.