The BPO sector has registered significant growth in recent times in terms of revenue, number of companies and employees
The emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) has certainly boosted the business process outsourcing (BPO) market around the world in recent times, but many paint a bleak future as they think it is going to leave many people jobless.
For example, chatbot and voicebot might take over call service jobs globally, and process automation software could handle data entry jobs.
In Bangladesh, local social media marketing service providers have already started using the AI-based chatbot to respond to customers on Facebook corporate pages.
Chatbot is a program designed to simulate conversation with human users via auditory or textual methods. Voicebot is a type of chatbot that responds to voice commands only.
International market observers say AI will replace around 50,000 jobs in the BPO sector in the Philippines in the next five years. In India, approximately 25 percent of existing jobs in the sector will be reduced by the end of 2020.
In an interview, Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee talked about why the rise of AI in the BPO sector is grim. He says that the people in the BPO sector across the world are scared now.
"Medical transcription can now be done by robots. And that is the kind of thing that will hit low-skilled people," he said.
Porag Obayed, director of We Are X, a social media marketing service firm for Robi and Apex, said they have replaced at least 10 percent of their employees with smart Chatbot software in the past year.
But Porag thinks, "Still, in call centres, human intelligence can process the psychological context of customers better than AI."
Md Shofiul Alam, the founder of Desh AI, a local outsourcing company, said: "Robots cannot compete in many areas where human intervention is urgently required."
"AI will change the nature of jobs. We have to reskill and upskill the existing BPO staff soon," added Shofiul.
Shofiul went on to say that 70 percent of the BPO market is dominated by voice-based services. So, non-voice services that are less affected by automation must be explored for expanding the market.
Shofiul also recommended that, "We should establish a national research and knowledge centre. Without local and updated data, it is difficult to analyse, identify and plan for a larger goal."
"We need to focus on building a national skill database first because we do not know exactly how many graphic designers we have, and we don't have a dataset of their level of competence," added Shofiul.
Meanwhile, the government has already drafted a national strategy paper for AI for the next five years.
The paper includes research, creation of skilled labour, skill development, said NM Ziaul Anam, senior secretary of the ICT Division.
"We cannot really stop technological change, but we are a champion in adaption, and our people will learn to adapt to AI on their own initiative with a little help from us," said Ziaul.
Wahidur Rahman Sharif, president of the Bangladesh Association of Call Centres and Outsourcing (Bacco), said the impact of AI in the BPO sector is still a long way away for Bangladesh.
"Right now, the main purpose of the government is to build a sustainable AI ecosystem, and we all are working on it," said Wahidur.
Towhid Hossain, general secretary of Bacco, said, "Bangladesh is in a geographically favourable time zone for BPO. This is a big plus for us. Some 40,000 new jobs can be created if we can expand our domestic services."
Instead of fearing that artificial intelligence will take over the BPO industry, local experts suggest that workers can be trained to cope with the inevitable reality.
"Now the question is whether we can survive in this transitional phase while upgrading our low-skilled workers."
"Whenever a new technology emerges anywhere, it is inevitable that some jobs will be lost," said Mustafa Jabbar, minister for Post and Telecommunications. "However new technology creates opportunities for new jobs as well."
"We shouldn't just look at what is lost, we should also look at what has been gained. The important thing is to prepare the workforce for this change and turn them into human capital," he added.
BPO sees significant growth
The BPO sector has registered significant growth in recent times in terms of revenue, number of companies and employees.
Last year the country's earnings from the BPO sector were $300 million.
Currently, over 50,000 people are working at 300 firms in this sector. Approximately 20,000 people are joining this sector each year, according to industry insiders.
This private sector is running government calling services 999 and 333.
"It is possible to create two to three lakh jobs with the capturing of the international market," said Towhid, the general secretary of Bacco.
Additional reporting by Ariful Islam Mithu.