‘Training My Replacement’: Inside a Call Center Worker’s Battle With A.I.

“This AI stuff is getting really crazy.”

The voices of Divine Charlamagne, host of national radio show The Breakfast Club, and their guests Mandy B and Weezy WTF, on Interstate 10 in Mississippi during their daily commute. It echoed in Ironda Sherrod’s car as she was speeding down the highway. Her favorite radio show was discussing artificial intelligence, specifically her AI-generated samples of Biggie.

“Sounds cool sonically” God Charlamagne Said. “But it lacks soul.”

WeezyWTF replied: “I’ve had questions like, ‘Can you replace the people working for you with AI?'”

Sherrod nods emphatically as he drives past low brick houses and shopping malls dotted with Waffle Houses. Feeling uneasy, she arrived at her AT&T call center where she works. She played radio exchanges about her AI to her colleagues.

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

About 230 customer service representatives at AT&T’s call center in Ocean Springs, Michigan, like the millions of American workers in thousands of workplaces, have spent the past year waiting for new managers to stick. As such, we have seen the rapid and sure arrival of artificial intelligence. Go in and kick your feet up.

All of a sudden, a customer service representative stopped taking notes during a call with a customer. Instead, AI tools generated transcripts for managers to refer to later. AI technology suggested what to tell customers. Customers also spent time on phone lines with automated systems that resolved simple questions and passed complex questions to human representatives.

The 38-year-old Sherrod, 5-foot-11 and exuding a quiet confidence, looked at the new technology with a combination of frustration and dread. “I always had a question in the back of her mind,” she said. “Am I training my successor?”

Ms. Sherrod, vice president of the call center’s local union branch and a member of the Telecommunications Workers’ Union of America, began questioning AT&T managers. “If I don’t talk about this, my family could be at risk,” she said. “Will I become unemployed?”

Over the past few months, AI chatbot ChatGPT has been deployed everywhere: courtrooms, classrooms, hospitals, and more. With that comes speculation about the impact of AI on jobs. For many, AI feels like a ticking time bomb and will certainly blow up your jobs. But others, like Sherrod, don’t think the AI ​​threat is abstract. They are already feeling the effects.

When automation eats up jobs, they are often assigned customer service roles first. 3 million jobs In the United States. Automation tends to overtake repetitive tasks. Customer service, already a major hub for outsourcing jobs abroad, could be a prime candidate.

According to a survey of 2,000 people by researchers at Cornell University, more than half of U.S. call center workers surveyed this year reported that their employers have automated some of their work. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they felt there was a moderate or very high likelihood of layoffs within the next two years due to increased bot use.

Tech executives say the fear of automation dates back centuries, to the Luddites who smashed and burned their textile machines, but historically automation has created more jobs than it has lost. He points out that it has been weakened by reality.

But job creation happens gradually. New jobs created by technology often require complex skills, much like engineering roles. That could create a gap for workers like Sherrod, who found something of a golden ticket at AT&T: $21.87 an hour, paying up to $3,000 a month in fees, medical and The job offers five weeks of service, he said. Vacation — All without a college degree. (He’s less than 5% of AT&T roles that require a college education.)

For Sherrod, customer service meant people like her, a young black woman raised by her grandmother in a small town in Mississippi, had a “really good life.”

“We are breaking a generational curse,” Sherrod said. “That’s for sure.”

Sherrod grew up in a one-story brick home in Pascagoula, where money was tight. Sherrod lost his mother when he was five years old. Sherrod remembers that her grandmother, who took her in, wasn’t working, but she always got food stamps to take to the corner bakery whenever her family could afford it. Mr. Sherrod cried as he remembered how Christmas used to be. Families had plastic trees and tried to celebrate with ornaments, but usually didn’t have the money to buy presents.

Job opportunities seemed limited for students at Pascagoula High School, she recalled. A lot of people went to Ingalls Shipyards. The shipyard needed a hot job under the Mississippi sun. Others went to the local Chevron Refinery.

“I felt like I had to work hard all the time to make a living,” Sherrod said. “My lifestyle never seemed to be easy and fun.”

At age 16, Sherrod was working at KFC, earning $6.50 an hour. After she graduated high school and dropped out of community college, she moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, where she worked as a maid at the IP Casino, a 32-story hotel, where her sister still works.

Within months of working at the casino, Sherrod felt the work taking its toll on her body. Her knees ached and her back throbbed. She had to clean at least 16 rooms a day, catching her hair out of her bathroom drain and rolling up dirty sheets.

When a friend told her about a job at AT&T, Sherrod thought the opportunity looked incredible. The call center was fully air-conditioned. She could sit all day and rest her knees. She took the call center application test twice, and the second time she got a job offer in 2006, her hourly wage went from about $7.75 at a casino to $9.41.

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

So did AT&T, which made her feel more and more comfortable. “In 17 years, my checks have never gone wrong,” she said. “AT&T does the best job in this space.”

This spring, lawmakers in Washington began calling AI tool makers to discuss the risks posed by their products.

Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said his biggest fear was unemployment, before saying, “Tell me, what is your biggest nightmare?” asked Altman.

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

The reality is already clear. British telecommunications company BT Group said in May it would cut up to 55,000 jobs by 2030 as it relies more on AI. He said it would affect some clerical jobs in the company, with up to 30% of clerical jobs being eliminated. Create some roles while creating new roles.

AT&T is beginning to integrate AI into many parts of its customer service operations, including routing customers to agents, suggesting technical solutions during customer calls, and creating transcripts.

The company said all of these uses are aimed at creating a better experience for its customers and employees. “We are really committed to using AI to empower and empower our employees,” said Nicole Rafferty, who heads AT&T’s customer care operations and works with staff across the country.

“Resolving complex customer situations will always require face-to-face contact,” Rafferty added. “That’s why we are so focused on building AI that supports our employees.”

Economists who study AI argue that it is unlikely to cause sudden and widespread job cuts. Rather, the need for humans to perform certain tasks may gradually diminish, making the rest of the work more difficult.

“Call-center workers are left with the most complex and frustrated customers,” said Virginia Dolgast, a professor at Cornell University’s New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Sherrod always enjoys getting to know his customers. She said she received about 20 calls a day from 9:30 to 6:30. While she solves technical problems, she listens to why people are calling and listens to clients who have just bought a new home, got married or lost a family member.

“It’s like being a therapist,” she said. “They tell you the story of their life.”

She has already found that AI is making her job even more difficult. She said the recordings of the calls were full of mistakes because automated technology had a hard time understanding Sherrod’s smoothness. Once the technology is out of the pilot stage, it cannot be modified. (AT&T said it is improving the AI ​​products it uses to prevent these kinds of errors.)

Sherrod said it is likely that at some point the company’s centers won’t have as many people answering calls as work becomes more efficient.

Sherrod also wonders if the company doesn’t trust her. She won her AT&T Summit Award for the second year in a row and was ranked in the top 3% of the company’s customer service representatives nationwide. Her name was projected on the wall of the call center.

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

As companies like AT&T embrace AI, experts are releasing proposals aimed at protecting workers. Training programs to help transition to new jobs and compulsory labor taxes can be levied on employers when workers’ jobs are automated but they are not retrained.

Trade unions are joining the fight. In Hollywood, unions representing actors and TV writers have fought to limit the use of AI in scriptwriting and production.

Only 6 percent of the country’s private sector workers are unionized. Sherrod is one of them, sitting in a union hall nine miles away from the call center and working under a Norman Rockwell painting of a wire engineer, who has reached out to the company for more information on its AI plans. are starting to fight.

For many years, Sherrod’s demands, representing the union, were rote. As a steward, she usually asked the company to reduce fines for her colleagues who got into trouble.

But this summer, for the first time, she felt she was addressing issues that affect workers beyond AT&T. She recently asked the union to set up a task force focused on AI.

In late May, Sherrod was invited by U.S. Communications Workers to travel to Washington, where she and dozens of other officials met with the White House Office of Public Engagement to share their experiences with AI.

One warehouse worker said he was monitored by AI that tracks how fast his packages were moving, putting him under pressure to skip breaks. One delivery driver said automated monitoring technology is used to monitor employees and look for potential disciplinary action, even though employee records are unreliable. Sherrod explained how his AI at the call center created an inaccurate overview of his work.

Her son Malik was surprised to hear his mother was heading to the White House. “When I heard about it from his father, at first I said, ‘It’s a lie,'” he said with a laugh.

Sherrod sometimes feels that her life presents an argument for a job that may one day cease to exist.

With her salary and fees, she was able to buy a house. She lives on a sunny street full of her family, some of whom work in fields such as nursing and accounting. She is down the road from the softball field and playground. On weekends, she gathers her neighbors to cook. Adults eat snowballs, kids play basketball and set up splash pads.

Sherrod takes pride in buying whatever Malik asks for. She wants to give him a childhood she never had.

“Call center work is life-changing,” she said. “Look at my life. Will it all be taken from me?”

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