A booming area of the UK economy is to come under threat from IBM software, with the company working on software that will replace workers in call centres with intelligent systems that can deal with customer queries automatically.
IBM gave a sneak preview of the technology at its BPEC conference in New Orleans last week. In a simulated demonstration, Carol Kovac, vice president of applications and solutions at IBM, showed how the company had capitalised on its speech recognition technology, Viavoice, to create an intelligent interface to Internet business applications.
The technology uses text recognition and mining capabilities to deduce the nature of an emailed enquiry, perhaps one about the safety of a particular product, and formulates a reply, which could consist of sending multimedia demonstrations and or even a prolonged dialogue. The technology could be available within the next two years.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Trade and Industry said one per cent of the UK's working population is now employed in call centres. She said: "At the moment, new technology seems to be creating jobs at call centres, not removing them. We can't comment on future technology that may come into the marketplace and may work or may not."
In a second demonstration, this time of technology that is ready to ship, IBM previewed Hotmedia. This technology is designed to improve the multimedia capabilities of an Internet site without having to waste the user's time with the download of plugin applications necessary to take advantage of enhanced sound or graphics capabilities; and also without putting extra demand on the host's server capacity.
Hotmedia is a Java based development tool which will have open APIs to allow developers to work with the technology. It promises developers the opportunity to create Web sites with the ability to rotate or zoom in on particular graphics and run video clips or animation without having to move to a new Internet page.
IBM also talked about a project codenamed the "emotional mouse" - a mouse that can detect human emotion, based on gestural recognition.
For more stories see 1 March issue of PC Week
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