robot love
While people have grown accustomed to the conveniences AI provides, they're still unclear exactly how it works PHOTO: Henry Schimke

How much trust do you place in the machines you use and interact with every day? Do you ever think it might be possible for a machine to understand you as well as — or maybe even better than — another human being?

The truth is that increasing numbers of consumers each year are putting their trust into machines that gather data about them and then use it to understand their behavior and preferences in far quicker, easier and often more accurate ways than human beings ever could.

AI Solutions May Be Evolving but They Aren’t New

In light of this knowledge, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we are living in an age of advanced robots that have emerged to challenge the tyrannical reign of humanity and overthrow the established order of things — while taking all of our jobs.

The truth, however, is that all of us have been interacting with machines in one way or another for many years now. This latest ‘rise of the machines’ is nothing new: organizations have been using artificial intelligence (AI) ‘always-on’ decision management solutions for decades to gain insights into their customers and use those insights to tailor offerings and services accordingly.

Excuse Me, but Are You Human? 

What has changed is people’s attitudes towards machines and their increasing ubiquity, and there’s no better example of that than in the realm of customer service. There, the use of AI has become much more visible in recent years through the emergence of chat bots and virtual agents. 

Indeed, a recent study conducted by my employer among 6,000 global consumers, found that 88 percent of respondents wanted to be told whether they were interacting with a real person or a machine when they received customer service help.

Can I Trust a Robot? 

What this tells us is that, even though this technology has been a staple of our interactions with customer service departments for many years now, there are still significant barriers to overcome if AI is to win the trust of consumers.

Put simply, customers have become accustomed to expecting the benefits that using AI can provide but without understanding or acknowledging the role this technology plays in providing them. Our same study revealed that more than a third (36 percent) of respondents did not agree that AI could currently provide the same or better levels of customer service as a human.

Telling the Difference Can Be Tricky 

What’s more, 80 percent of those surveyed said that they would rather speak to a real person instead of an AI chatbot, despite the fact that almost a third (30 percent) admitted that they couldn’t actually tell the difference between the two when using online chat services.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in this reasoning — beyond the obvious, which is that many might already be serial AI users and not even realize it — is the mistaken belief that the use of artificial intelligence must be, for want of a better word, a binary decision.

Chatbot or Human? Can I Have Both?

Nevertheless, it’s clear that consumers are indicating that they want to have increased choice when it comes to whether they use AI as part of a customer service interaction, and greater transparency about whether they are already using it.

However, to extract the greatest value from this technology, businesses are going to increasingly find themselves using human/AI augmentation to ensure that they’re providing the best possible experience to their customers.

That Chatbot Really Understands Me

In other words, it won’t be an either/or choice for customers to use an AI chatbot or to speak to a real person. Instead, the process will involve humans working alongside AI to generate insights, predict behavior and make recommendations that will have a significant impact on the way that we as consumers interact with organizations.

For example, in some cases, during a single interaction with a company, you might speak to a chatbot and a human within the space of minutes without realizing it or noticing any difference.

As AI becomes smarter and the integration with existing processes gets better, the interactions with customers will become smoother. And of course, the smoother the interaction, the more accepting consumers will be of using AI as a customer service tool.

Doctor, Is This Shirt a Good Color for Me?

To some extent, we’re already seeing some progress on this front. Despite initial skepticism and suspicion, our study found that consumers are slowly becoming more receptive to using AI for customer service, although they were notably more accepting within some industries than others.

For instance, one in three (34 percent) said that they would be happy using AI from a retailer to provide personalized recommendations on items they might want to purchase, and more than a quarter (27 percent) said that they would feel comfortable with the idea of a doctor using AI to make a better diagnosis or to recommendations about treatment.

Show Us the Money

By contrast though, just 10 percent said that they were comfortable with the government using AI to provide them with better and more personalized public services.

And perhaps most tellingly, 68 percent of the consumers surveyed said that they would be open to using more AI if it helped them to save time or money, yet only 38 percent felt that AI actually had the potential to improve the customer service they personally received.

This disparity tells us that we, as consumers, are a fickle bunch. On the one hand, we view new technologies that we don’t understand with suspicion but the minute they provide us with tangible benefits, we then tend to accept them unconditionally.

AI and Humans Are Both Here to Stay

What’s clear is that people are already using AI far more than they realize, and that its use in customer service will only see exponential growth in the future, as both consumers and businesses begin to understand and appreciate AI’s benefits.

We may or may not get to the point where a machine understands a person as well as another human being can, but perhaps a more important consideration for organizations to consider is whether consumers are willing to place as much trust in technology as they are in another person.

Only when that question has been answered and that obstacle overcome will organizations be able to harness the power of humans and machines working together to provide truly seamless customer experiences.