Friday, 27 May 2016

Metal Mickey wants your job!

An interesting – worrying? – story this week about robots replacing humans. Foxconn, a Chinese company which makes products for Apple and Samsung (and possibly others) has replaced 60,000 workers with robots. Which probably isn’t great news, economically, if you work on a production line.

There’s a growing amount of speculation that the age of the robot may soon be upon us – here I cite in evidence the BBCs Will a robot take your job? article last year. But surely universities are safe from this kind of thing?

Not coming to a University near you
Don’t be so sure. Walking, talking, robots probably aren’t going to be lecturing any time soon, but a different sort of robot is having an impact. Georgia State University in the US of A has started using a chatbot – a computer programme which independently ‘talks’ to users via text – to handle queries from incoming students. Claiming to answer more than 99% of student queries, the chatbot, called Pounce, has been helping more than 3,000 students apply for financial aid; apply for accommodation and enrol in courses. In its first month of operation.

This is clearly a big thing. If the communication channels for conversion, admission and enrolment can be augmented by such technology, many universities will want to replicate this, and not only across the Atlantic. Speed and quality of response matter in converting an applicant to a student. And this directly impacts on universities’ success, so we can expect to see this grow. And if you have Pounce you don’t need so many people on the phones or at the help desks.

Pounce is a “product of artificial intelligence and supervised machine learning” according to the blurb from AdmitHub, its vendor. Its answering questions which cover a range of standard issues, but can come from left field:
everything from “When will I get my scholarship package?” to “Can my dog live in the dorm with me?”, according to the blurb. 
There are lots of other university situations where this sort of transaction happens. Exam time, submission of coursework; library and IT rules, graduation ceremonies. Universities are guiding students through all sorts of procedures, and a capacity to answer questions naturally, quickly, reliably and trackably, any time of day or night, is bound to be appealing to university managers. Where admission goes, other services will follow.

So it seems that, for some professional service staff at least, Metal Mickey might not want your job. But Hal from 2001 - A Space Odyssey might.

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