If you are reading this newsletter in the US, I hope you have a fabulous Labor Day long weekend. Travel safely.
Cogito is an artificial intelligence program designed to help customer service workers communicate more clearly, empathize with frustrated callers, and improve their overall performance. Cogito was 45 people a year ago and has 150 now.
Cogito listens to the tone, pitch, word frequency and hundreds of other factors in customer service conversations. When it detects something is wrong — an irritated customer, a call center agent taking too long to respond, or who sounds bored, tired, irritated, rushed or otherwise unpleasant — it displays a notification on the agent’s computer telling them to slow down, speed up, stop talking, start talking or try to relate, sound more sympathetic.
For anyone who’s spent hours of their lives stuck on the phone with an unhelpful or downright rude customer service agent, Cogito may seem like a godsend. But Cogito is indicative of a far bigger and more unsettling trend that extends well beyond call centers: artificial intelligence, once seen as a tool largely under our control, is beginning to tell humans what to do.
In 2007, Alex Pentland co-founded Cogito Inc. with a former consultant and software developer who attended Pentland’s courses while at MIT’s business school. They received government funding to experiment with voice analysis software designed to diagnose mental illness in veterans. But it soon became apparent that there was other commercial potential in AI software that could determine a speaker’s state of mind from analyzing their voice. Cogito focused on developing software for businesses.
At MetLife, where Cogito has been rolled out to 10 U. S. call centers over the past year, managers say that the program improved first call resolution metrics by 3.5% and customer satisfaction by 13%, and helped agents (who take an average of 700 calls a week) to have more “human” conversations. It also significantly reduces call time.
The program’s tracking features aren’t meant for punishing call center workers, but they could. Amazon has a shipping center system that tracks productivity and automatically fires workers if they fall below certain targets. Cogito allows intensive surveillance of workers and a kind of a priori justification for potentially firing or disciplining workers based on the assessment of a smart machine that neither the worker nor the manager is able to contest or validate. And as AI software becomes increasingly advanced, it could make it harder for many to get a job in the first place. AI is on track to displace as many as hundreds of millions of workers over the next decade or two.
If AI can “coach” the way we speak, how much more of our lives may soon be shaped by AI input? And what do we really understand about the way that influence works? In the case of Cogito, spending eight hours a day, five days a week under AI direction may have effects beyond how someone speaks at work. People begin to speak more directly in private conversations. If AI monitoring and direction becomes more sophisticated and widespread, we may find ourselves less certain of who we really are.
Techno-philosophers predict we will soon become part of what is called an “AIome,” or an extended web of external AI processes that will feed us information and come to define our identities. Such a prediction generates some tough questions. Will companies like Google and Facebook, who already have massive power over what billions see on the internet, be able to control even more of our everyday behavior, even offline?
Atheism is a non-prophet organization