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UK council's latest staff member is an AI called Amelia

Movies like to frame the rise of artificial intelligence as a kind of Terminator-style hostile takeover. The reality is somewhat different.

This week, robots ticked off another box in the “win” category when the UK’s Enfield council in London announced that it has acquired a new AI program called Amelia, which will be used to answer the questions of local residents. To do this, Amelia relies on cutting edge speech recognition, alongside an ability to understand the context of conversations, apply logic, learn, resolve problems — and even sense the emotions of the person it’s speaking with.

Related: Robots will replace 5 million jobs by 2020

Amelia_half_body_2“Amelia has an emotional ontology in which the words exchanged in the customer dialogue are mapped onto a well-established psychological model,” Frank Lansink, European CEO at Amelia’s home company IPsoft, tells Digital Trends. “This allows her to interpret the emotional mood and personality. This means she can react appropriately to the dialogue in terms of what she says and in her facial expression and gestures. Of course, if a customer is going across a specific threshold that indicates the customer is getting angry or frustrated she can escalate to a human colleague. Conversely, a human colleague may be brought in to discuss a new offer or service with a customer who is very happy with the exchange.”

Amelia will start out answering questions on the council’s website, although it is hoped her job capabilities will soon expand elsewhere. Amelia is reportedly 60 percent cheaper than a comparable human worker — which comes in handy when considering that Enfield council, like many organizations around the world, is right now in the middle of cost-cutting measures.

But despite a growing number of reports suggesting that tools like Amelia are helping put the jobs of fleshy mortals at risk, Lansink says we don’t have too much to fear.

“At Enfield council and elsewhere, Amelia plays a complementary role; she supports human staff,” he says. “There have been no job losses because of the introduction of Amelia and there are no plans to reduce human staff. As an assistive technology, Amelia focuses on taking care of routine tasks, so that human staff have more time to tackle the more complex cases – and as a result helps to improve service delivery for all residents. Amelia opens up the possibility for re-designing roles so that she absorbs the mundane, repetitive questions at speed and at very high volume. This in turn allows her human colleagues to focus on exceptions, complex queries, analysis and future design of services for customers.”

Of course, that’s what they said about Skynet!