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Brian Scudamore is founder and CEO of O2E Brands, including home-service companies such as 1-800-GOT-JUNK?

It’s the year 2030. Every morning, you strap on your jetpack and soar over to the nearest Hyperloop station. Twenty minutes and two states later, you’re in the office with your robo-co-workers and hologram boss. Welcome to the future, baby!

Is the future really that close? I know nothing about artificial intelligence (AI) but I’ve always been curious to know more about this new technology. That’s why, at the TED Conference in Vancouver earlier this year, I jumped at the opportunity to attend a Jeffersonian Dinner focused on the topic. Also in attendance: the guy who invented Siri and the head of robotics for General Motors.

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A lot of what I learned sounds wildly futuristic, and it’s not all rainbows and rocket ships: automation will displace more than 30 per cent of U.S. jobs by 2030. Labour jobs have been at risk of technological displacement since the invention of the wheel. But only in recent years have industries across the board begun to swap manpower for machines. Automation is popping up everywhere from Wall Street to the courthouse.

I still don’t understand how AI works, but I gained a new perspective on where our world is headed. And according to the experts, we’re a long way off from becoming a real-life episode of Black Mirror.

You can’t truly automate customer service

Automation is making its way into our everyday lives faster than you can say Siri. Fast-food kiosks have replaced high-schoolers working the tills at your favourite burger joint. Self-checkout machines and Amazon Go have replaced grocery store clerks. With self-driving technology developing rapidly, we may never have to hail a cab again.

I get the lure of automation in theory: increased production means higher profitability (and your company may get a cool robot out of it, too). But in reality, overautomating can have the inverse impact on your business, especially in customer-service industries.

When was the last time you called a customer-support centre? Whether it was your phone company, cable provider or the bank, I can almost guarantee your call was answered by an automated system. And I’m willing to bet you had a frustrating experience trying to get what you needed.

In the customer-service world, automation is brand suicide. It might be a rapid-fire way to cut costs, but is it really worth it if it also costs you customers? I’ve never understood why an industry that requires human interaction by nature has evolved to become entirely artificial.

Customers don’t like it either. For years, studies have shown that customers would almost always rather talk to a real person. Even in today’s fast-paced world, people value empathy and an emotional connection above anything else. If your company doesn’t meet those needs, they’ll take their business elsewhere.

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Old-school automation

After 30 years in business, we’ve figured out a way to automate without sacrificing the quality of our service. No apps, algorithms or AI required – just a simple formula: automate with systems and processes, not machines.

Our call centre is still 100 per cent operated by real people. You can call us 24/7 and talk to an honest-to-goodness human being. We could easily have automated years ago with an interactive voice system or with bots. But above all else, we’re a customer-service business; if we left this core part of our brand to AI, we’d be betraying our customers’ trust.

The fact is there’s simply no substitute for good old-fashioned customer service. This is just as important at our head office as it is at each and every one of our franchises.

The services we provide at O2E Brands − from painting houses to cleaning them − rely on the physical work of our team members. We’ve developed clear systems and processes for everything from operations to sales to marketing. We use technology when necessary to enhance our customer service, but we know we’re more successful with our people at the forefront.

At TED, I learned that most people are confused about AI because we don’t understand it. We get freaked out that a robot can perform surgeries, so we start creating stories that they’re taking over the world.

In reality, there’s nothing “artificial” about AI at all; it simply takes real data and shapes it to meet a need. Machine learning can’t create human-level intelligence and computers can’t make decisions on their own. The experts I met at TED estimate we’re at least 40 years away from that.

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Maybe one day our competitors will be robot painters or automated movers, but we’re not worried. Technology may be getting close, but it’ll never replace genuine, human-to-human interaction.

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