(From left to right) Diosdado Banatao, George Yang and Henry "Big Boy" Sy Jr. are teaming up on a startup aimed at helping BPOs cope with the rise of automation
Henry "Big Boy" Sy Jr., son of the Philippines' richest man, and technology entrepreneur Diosdado Banatao are backing a startup that is building a technology with the potential to help Philippine call centers cope with the rise of job-threatening robotic process automation (RPA), according to Forbes Philippines magazine.
Founded by Filipino-Canadian computer engineer George Yang, the startup, called AI Pros, is conducting field tests for what it calls "augmented intelligence" technology among several call centers in the Philippines. The startup has operations in Silicon Valley in southern California as well as Manila in the Philippines. (Yang is not related to the Chinese-Filipino tycoon with the same name who brought McDonald's to the Philippines.)
One of the field tests involves a call center that makes outbound calls to sell travel packages and magazine subscriptions worth at least $1,000. Relying on Yang's AI technology, agents of the call center were able to increase sales by 80 percent making cold calls to potential US customers.
The call center workers use AI Pros' technology, a voice-based natural language software, that can speak with customers using spoken English and pitch them a sale. The workers monitor the calls and intervene when the software can't understand some words uttered by a potential buyer.
"In one of our ongoing trials, US agents’ conversion rate was at 10 percent but our AI-powered Philippine agents outperformed them at 18 percent. That’s an 80 percent increase in performance," said Yang, according to Forbes Philippines. "Just like Google and Facebook, the conversion rate is the ultimate test for any sales or marketing campaign. So far, this is one of the best conversion machines the industry has ever seen."
The results are impressive considering that making outbound cold calls aimed at selling stuff to uninterested customers is generally more difficult than inbound work providing information and assistance to customers with questions or complaints.
Forbes Philippines quoted Yang explaining what "augmented intelligence" is: "It's artificial intelligence coupled with human intelligence. You get the best of both worlds. Machines have their strength of raw computing power but humans have their strength in complex communications and large frame pattern recognition. Together, they are difficult to beat."
AI Pros is conducting field tests for what it calls "augmented intelligence," or the combination of artificial and human intelligence
The positive results of the field trials may be proof that "augmented intelligence" has the potential to help Philippine-based call centers and BPO providers survive the threat from other AI technologies. Examples of these technologies include RPA and cognitive agents that can answer technical and customer relations queries at a fraction of the time it will take a human call center agent.
A Pew Research Center survey of 1,896 experts found that they expect robots and digital agents, which cost only a third of the pay of employees in offshore locations such as India and the Philippines, will replace a large number of BPO workers by 2025, according to the magazine.
Yang said his "augmented intelligence" technology could help the Philippine BPO industry cope with the AI threat by creating new kinds of higher value BPO jobs that will replace the low-value call center work lost to RPA. "I call it the battle of the AIs," Yang told Forbes Philippines. "While artificial intelligence and robotic process automation would destroy these BPO call center jobs, we use augmented intelligence to create new call center jobs."
The venture enjoys the support of Banatao, a leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist who invented some of the processors that revolutionized the computer industry in the 1980s and 1990s. He is contributing crucial pieces of technology to Yang's augmented intelligence solution thanks to his ties to AI companies such as Wave Computing and ThinCI. These companies are developing new machines designed to run AI applications such as vision processing and deep learning several times faster.
Sy, who is CEO of the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines while overseeing the SM Group's real estate acquisition and development activities, is providing funding in his personal capacity. "We are one of the biggest landlords of BPOs here in the Philippines," he told Forbes Philippines, referring to SM's shopping malls and office buildings. "About 90% of our offices are (occupied by) BPOs."
"I believe we should be at the cutting edge of any business we are in. AI is the future of BPO business and we should push forward to that new frontier to stay relevant and be ahead of the game," Sy added.