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Robot Amelia – a glimpse of the future for local government

Will Davies
This article is more than 5 years old

Enfield council’s decision to recruit an AI to deliver local authority services paves the way for more automation. But how will this affect human employees?

Amelia robot above shoulder.
Robot Amelia provides a glimpse of future local government. Photograph: IPsoft
Robot Amelia provides a glimpse of future local government. Photograph: IPsoft

Last modified on Tue 21 Feb 2017 12.21 EST

The north London borough of Enfield is to introduce a new employee called Amelia, it was announced earlier this month. Amelia will work on frontline council services, taking resident queries, handling requests for permits and authenticating licenses.

But that wasn’t what gave cause for a public announcement. Amelia has a more unusual characteristic: she’s a robot.

Enfield council worked with IPsoft, an American artificial intelligence company, to build this new “cognitive agent”. Her personality and social skills are based on natural language processing, whereby computers learn how to interpret the emotion expressed in a human voice, so as to know how to respond appropriately. The hope is that callers won’t even notice that they’re not dealing with a human.

The justification for this automation is much the same as for any new technology of the past 200 years: it reduces the need for boring, tedious labour, freeing up human beings to do more complex and enjoyable tasks. If call centre operatives can be replaced by robots, then employees can focus on more subtle forms of dialogue, judgement and interaction.

The problem with this is that the frontier of what is known as affective computing is moving frighteningly fast right now. As I explore in my book, The Happiness Industry, businesses and policymakers are drawing on a constantly expanding range of techniques and technologies to understand how people are feeling, as a more efficient alternative to asking them.

The feelings of customers can be monitored by their tone of voice, as Amelia will do, but also by the movement of their faces and eyes, the words in their social media updates, or their data trail of credit card use. Employees are also coming under digital surveillance, as managers seek to understand the sources of productivity and psychological engagement.

The space for human judgement and autonomy is therefore shrinking all the time. And as it does so, the advantage of hiring a virtual employee over a human one (with all of the sick days, attitude problems and gripes that often go with that) grows. In her classic 1979 sociological study, The Managed Heart, Arlie Hochschild looked at how flight attendants manage to manufacture emotional warmth as a feature of their jobs.

She demonstrated that it is a complicated performance, producing conflicts within the employee’s psychology. Several decades later, the challenge of manufacturing empathy and positivity has become a more technical one, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence. And as those advances progress, the range of jobs that Amelias can perform will expand. In a context of austerity, that can only mean fewer and fewer humans around.

Meet Amelia: a well-rounded, amenable and friendly new colleague – who is also a robot.

We don’t yet know how fully the dream of automated empathy can be realised. After a recent call to my local council, I received a text requesting a peculiar type of feedback. Rather than asking me how much satisfaction I’d just received, it asked me “how happy the council employee seemed to serve me”. My feelings were being used to audit their feelings. The entanglement of work, customer service and emotions is complicated, and apparently growing more so all the time.

This is not an uncommon aspiration of modern management. Staff in chain cafes are instructed to exude fun and joy among themselves, so as to improve the customer experience. It’s no longer enough for them to wish us a nice day, they need to be having one too.

How will Amelia fare by that standard? She might be able to listen carefully to our needs, and respond appropriately (even sympathetically), but she won’t be enjoying herself. Not only that, but creeping automation and surveillance in the modern workplace is a cause of anxiety and stress.

Given advances in affective computing over the coming years, and the likelihood of further fiscal retrenchment post-Brexit, Amelia provides a glimpse of future local government. What we don’t know, as with previous technological upheavals, is what the social and psychological fall-out will look like.

William Davies is a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of The Happiness Industry: How the government & Big business sold us wellbeing.

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