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Why is building empathy into AI so important?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Razum / Shutterstock)

Do you remember the days when we were hesitant to buy something online? About typing our well-guarded personal credit card numbers into a box on screen? Today, most of us make as many if not more purchases online as we do in person, because there are more controls in place that address our concerns. As a result, we have learned that the risk of ecommerce is worth the reward of speed and convenience. But it was not always that way.

Like ecommerce years ago, Artificial Intelligence (AI) today is viewed with much of the same scepticism and fear. To be fair, science fiction has not painted a very pretty picture, but that is not the only problem.

To better understand the root of mistrust around AI, Pega surveyed 5,000 worldwide consumers about the topic, revealing some interesting insights. More than 70 per cent of those surveyed were uncomfortable with businesses using AI to interact with them; 60 per cent did not believe AI had the potential to improve customer service; and a third said they were concerned about AI taking their jobs.

Talk about an image problem. This data indicates there is still a huge issue with scepticism and fear, but also major misconceptions around AI.

The reality is that AI is already seamlessly integrated into our daily lives, and it is more practical and useful than many of us realise. But most of us still can’t get past the trust issue, especially when we hear stories of businesses misusing AI.

The benefits of AI

AI is useful technology that can dramatically improve the customer experience – by shortening servicing times, ensuring connected conversations across channels, and offering the right products and services when customers want and need them.

Despite the benefits of AI, most survey respondents (70 per cent) still prefer talking to a human versus a bot. This lack of faith in AI extends to how respondents feel about businesses. In fact, two-thirds (65 per cent) do not believe companies have their best interests at heart. Can you really blame them when so many companies still spam them with irrelevant offers and provide what is essentially dysfunctional service? If people do not trust the companies behind the technology, it is understandable why they are sceptical of the technology itself.

Building trust

In a world where businesses purport to be customer-centric, consumers are not buying it. Not enough organisations show empathy towards their customers’ individual situations. For the masses to begin to trust AI, we need to incorporate empathy into our decision-making systems. Our communications need to be more relevant, more personalised and more in tune to customer needs, while incorporating context and suitability.

The good news is that with the right controls in place, AI can do this today.

By combining machine learning to help predict customer behaviour and an ethical framework put in place by humans, we can determine what the next best action should be for our customers – whether that is making them a relevant offer, listening to them (and remembering their intent and requirements), thanking them for being a valued customer, leaving them alone when that is the right thing to do – whatever the next best action is. This approach, though driven primarily by data and machines, is empathetic, because it considers the customers’ needs first, not just the company’s short-term profit goals.

Without AI, it is impossible to deliver this kind of empathetic customer experience on a large scale.

The evolution of AI

Not surprisingly, the Pega survey revealed that most customers (75 per cent) prefer a decision about a bank loan be made by human vs. a bot, most likely because those customers have more trust in humans and believe it’s possible to influence their decisions. But that is not always the case, as that human may also have an unconscious bias. Further, when other ethical decisions are left to just humans, we’ve seen plenty of cases in banking where unsuitable products were pushed on consumers who were destined to default. 

AI systems should work in conjunction with employees to ensure we make ethical decisions. With many businesses turning to AI to improve the customer experience, it is important for organisations to understand customer perceptions, concerns, preferences, and limitations while embedding ethical considerations into machine learning systems. This will enable AI decisioning to be viewed as empathetic.

Customers are not going to trust organisations overnight if AI is the sole arbiter of empathy in an organisation. However, by demanding responsible use of data and machine learning, AI can be used as a powerful tool to help guide decision making toward more optimal results for consumers and businesses.

Like ecommerce years ago, the goal for AI is to enhance the technology through responsible applications, irrefutable customer convenience and ease, and improved outcomes for all. Only then will customer perceptions about AI change.

Rob Walker, vice president, decision management and analytics, Pegasystems

Dr. Rob Walker is vice president, decision management and analytics at Pegasystems.