“Substitution Training”: Inside Call Center Workers’ Battle with AI

“These AI elements get really crazy.”

The voices of Charlemagne Tha Good, host of the nationally syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club,” and his guests Mandii B and WeezyWTF filled Ylonda Sherrod’s car as she speeded across Interstate 10 in Mississippi during her daily commute. Her favorite radio show was discussing artificial intelligence, specifically an AI-generated sample of Biggie.

“Vocally, it sounds great,” Charlemagne tha God He said. “But she lacks spirit.”

WeezyWTF responded: “I’ve had some people ask me like, ‘Oh, can you replace the people who work for you with AI? “I’m like, ‘No, dude.'”

Mrs. Sherrod nodded emphatically, as she drove past low-brick houses and waffle-house-dotted malls. I got to the AT&T call center where she works, and it felt uneasy. She played radio talk about artificial intelligence for a colleague.

Mrs. Sherrod’s friend replied, “Yeah, that’s crazy.” “What do you think of us?”

Like many millions of American workers, across thousands of workplaces, the roughly 230 customer service representatives at an AT&T call center in Ocean Springs, Miss., have watched the arrival of artificial intelligence over the past year quickly and surely, as a new manager settles into a workel. his feet.

Suddenly, customer service personnel weren’t taking their own notes during calls with customers. Instead, an AI tool generated text, which its managers could refer to later. The AI ​​technology was making suggestions about what to tell customers. Customers were also spending time on phone lines with automated systems, which solve simple questions and relay complex questions to human representatives.

Ms. Sherrod, 38, who at 5-foot-11 exudes cool confidence, viewed the new technology with a mixture of anger and fear. “I always had a question on my mind,” she said. “Should I train my replacement?”

Ms. Sherrod, vice president of the local union chapter of the call center, part of the Communications Workers of America, began asking questions of AT&T managers. “If we don’t talk about this, it could put my family in danger,” she said. “Will I be unemployed?”

In recent months, the ChatGPT AI chatbot has made its way into courtrooms, classrooms, hospitals, and everywhere in between. With it came speculation about the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs. For many people, AI seems like a ticking time bomb, and it is sure to explode in their work. But for some, like Ms. Sherrod, the threat of AI isn’t just a threat. They can already feel its effects.

When automation swallows jobs, it often has to do with customer service roles first, which they consist of Three million jobs in America. Automation tends to bypass tasks that repeat themselves; Customer service, already a prime location for outsourcing jobs abroad, could be a prime candidate.

The majority of US call center workers surveyed this year reported that their employers are automating some of their work, according to a survey of 2,000 people conducted by researchers at Cornell. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they felt it was somewhat likely or very likely that increased use of robots would lead to layoffs within the next two years.

Technology executives point out that fears of automation go back centuries — stretching back to the Luddites, who smashed and burned textile machinery — but have historically been undermined by the reality that automation creates more jobs than it eliminates.

But job creation is happening gradually. New jobs created by technology, such as engineering roles, often require complex skills. That could create a hole for workers like Ms. Sherrod, who found what appeared to be a golden ticket at AT&T: a job that pays $21.87 an hour and up to $3,000 in commissions a month, she said, and provides health care and five weeks of vacation — all with no get-together requirement. University degree. (Less than 5 percent of AT&T roles require a college education.)

Customer service, for Ms. Sherrod, meant that someone like her—a young black woman raised by her grandmother in small-town Mississippi—could make a “really good living.”

“We’re breaking down curses that have been passed down from generations,” Ms. Sherrod said. “certainly.”

In Mrs. Sherrod’s childhood home, a one-story brick A-line house in Pascagoula, money was tight. Her mother died when she was five years old. Her grandmother, who took her in, didn’t work, but Mrs. Sherrod remembers getting food stamps to take to the corner bakery whenever the family could spare. Mrs. Sherrod cries, remembering what Christmas was like. The family had a plastic tree and tried to make it festive with decorations, but there was no money for gifts.

She remembers that job opportunities seemed limited for students at Pascagoula High School. Many went to Ingalls Shipbuilding, a shipyard where work meant sweltering days under the Mississippi sun. Others went to the local Chevron refinery.

“I felt I would always have to do hard work in order to make a living,” said Mrs. Sherrod. “It seems like my lifestyle will never be an easy thing, something I enjoy.”

When Mrs. Sherrod was 16, she worked in Kentucky, making $6.50 an hour. After graduating high school and dropping out of community college, she moved to Biloxi, Miss., to work as a maid at IP Casino, a 32-story hotel, where her sister still works.

Within months of working at the casino, Mrs. Sherrod felt the workload on her body. Her knees were sore and her back ached. She had to clean at least 16 rooms a day, pulling hair out of the bathroom drains and rolling up dirty sheets.

When a friend told her about jobs at AT&T, the opportunity seemed, to Ms. Sherrod, impossibly good. The call center was air conditioned. She can sit all day and rest her knees. She auditioned the call center app twice, and the second time she got an offer, in 2006, she started out making $9.41 an hour, up from about $7.75 at the casino.

“9 dollars meant a lot to me,” she recalls.

So did AT&T, where she remained most comfortable: “In 17 years, my check has never been wrong,” she said. “AT&T is, by far, the best job in the area.”

This spring, lawmakers in Washington pushed AI tool makers forward to begin discussing the risks posed by the products they launched.

“Let me ask you what is your biggest nightmare,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, asked OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, after saying his biggest fear was losing a job.

“There will be an impact on jobs,” said Mr. Altman, whose company developed ChatGPT.

This fact has already become apparent. British telecoms company BT Group announced in May that it would cut up to 55,000 jobs by 2030 as it relies increasingly on artificial intelligence. Some roles while creating new roles.

AT&T has begun integrating artificial intelligence into many parts of its customer service business, including directing customers to agents, providing suggestions for technical solutions during customer calls and producing texts.

The company said that all of these uses aim to create a better experience for customers and employees. “We’re really trying to focus on using AI to augment and help our people,” said Nicole Rafferty, who leads the customer care operation at AT&T and works with employees nationwide.

“We will always need personal involvement to resolve these complex client situations,” added Ms. Rafferty. “That’s why we’re so focused on building AI that supports our people.”

Economists who study AI have argued that it probably won’t lead to sudden, large-scale layoffs. Instead, it could gradually eliminate the need for humans to perform certain tasks — and make the remaining work more difficult.

“The tasks left for call center workers are the most complex, and customers are frustrated,” said Virginia Duelgast, a professor at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell.

Mrs. Sherrod has always enjoyed getting to know her clients. She said she gets about 20 calls a day, from 9:30 to 6:30. As she solves technical problems, she listens to why people contact her, and hears from clients who have just bought new homes, got married or lost family members.

“It’s like I’m a therapist,” she said. They tell you their life stories.

She is already finding her job getting more difficult with artificial intelligence. She said the automated tech is having a hard time understanding Ms. Sherrod’s pull, so the transcripts from her calls are riddled with errors. Once the technology is in beta, you won’t be able to make patches. (AT&T said it is improving the AI ​​products it uses to prevent these kinds of errors.)

It seems likely, to Ms. Sherrod, that at some point as business efficiency increases, the company will not need as many people answering calls in its centres.

Ms. Sherrod also wonders: Doesn’t the company trust her? For two consecutive years, she’s won AT&T’s Summit Award, placing her in the top 3 percent of the company’s customer service representatives nationwide. Her name was displayed on the call center wall.

“They gave everyone a little gift bag with a glass in it,” recalls Mrs. Sherrod. “It means a lot to me.”

As companies like AT&T embrace AI, experts are putting forward proposals aimed at protecting workers. There is the possibility of training programs that help people move to new jobs, or an offset tax imposed on employers when a worker’s job is automated but the person is not retrained.

The trade unions are fighting these battles. In Hollywood, unions representing actors and television writers have struggled to limit the use of artificial intelligence in screenwriting and production.

Unions account for only 6% of private sector workers in the country. Ms. Sherrod is one of those, and she has begun to fight her company for more information about its plans for artificial intelligence, sitting in her union hall nine miles from the call center, working under Norman Rockwell’s panel of wire technician.

For years, Mrs. Sherrod’s demands on behalf of the guild were rote. As a flight attendant, she usually asked the company to reduce penalties for colleagues who got into trouble.

But for the first time, this summer, it feels like it’s addressing a problem that will affect those working outside of AT&T. She recently asked her union to create a task force focused on artificial intelligence

In late May, Ms. Sherrod was invited by US communications workers to travel to Washington, where she and dozens of other workers met with the White House Office of Public Engagement to share their experience with artificial intelligence.

A warehouse worker described being monitored with AI that tracks how quickly packages are being moved, creating pressure for him to skip breaks. A delivery driver said that automated monitoring technologies were used to monitor workers and look for possible disciplinary action, even though their records were not reliable. Ms. Sherrod described how the artificial intelligence in her call center created inaccurate summaries of her work.

Her son, Malik, was amazed to hear that his mother was heading to the White House. “When my dad told me about it,” he said, laughing, “I said at first, ‘You’re lying.

Mrs. Sherrod sometimes feels her life makes a case for a kind of job that may never have existed anymore.

With her salaries and commissions, she was able to buy a house. She lives on Sunny Street, which is full of families, some of whom work in fields such as nursing and accounting. It’s just down the road from the softball field and playground. On the weekends, her neighbors get together for a cookout. Adults eat snowballs, while kids play basketball and splash pads.

Mrs. Sherrod takes pride in buying Malik anything he asks. She wants to give him the childhood she never had.

“Call center work – it’s life changing,” she said. “Look at my life. Will all of this be taken away from me?”