Last week, the city council in Enfield, England announced that it had made a new hire: Amelia, a "robot!"
That's how several news outlets have framed the news, but no, you won't soon see a metallic droid ticketing cars in Enfield or picking up the trash. What the Enfield City Council actually bought is a new software program called Amelia. It's a chat bot that can answer questions in natural, human-readable language. It will, as The Telegraph reports, help pick up some slack in Enfield, population 324,574 people, which has been "beset by budget cuts." CNBC explains more precisely what Enfield hopes Amelia will do:
The council estimates it receives 55,000 calls, 5,000 face-to-face appointments and 100,000 website visits a month and hopes that Amelia will help absorb some of this demand.
In other words, Enfield got a new customer service program, albeit a very fancy one.
Amelia is a product of the New York-based company IPSoft, which has been gathering glowing press clips for a few years. "Amelia, A Machine, Thinks Like You Do," declared the Wall Street Journal in September 2014. "Meet Amelia: the computer that's after your job," The Telegraph echoed the next day. A year later PC World explained how Amelia "just got a whole lot more human"
According to the WSJ, Amelia can learn from the people interacting with the program and other information it's fed.
"She learns from textbooks, transcriptions of conversations, email chains and just about any other text," reported the WSJ. "As long as the answer appears in the data she gets, she can solve problems."
IPSoft has previously worked with big private companies like the management consulting group Accenture, which announced in May that it's creating a new division of the company around Amelia. But this, as IPSoft has been happy to point out, is Amelia's first deployment in the public sector.
Both IPSoft and Enfield Council have been pretty eager to get out in front of the idea that the introduction of the program will lead to job cuts. James Rolfe, a council official, told the Evening Standard that there are "no plans" to fire any human workers because of the introduction of Amelia.
Instead, he told The Financial Times, "it’s about freeing up our people so they’re not dealing with routine stuff that Amelia can deal with swiftly, so they’re free to deal with more complex problems."
Amelia doesn't go to work in Enfield until sometime in the late summer or early fall but is already getting caught up in the fear-the-robots battle. Despite reassurance from Rolfe and other Enfield officials that Amelia's deployment won't lead to job losses, there's been pushback from the council's Conservative minority, including councillor Jo Laban.
"There looks like there will be a serious impact on service provision and potentially job losses," Laban said. "Residents want interaction with real people who can empathise with concerns, not AI."
Automation, which has long been heralded as the pinnacle of human achievement, is now scary to us as it becomes a reality. Artificial intelligence is increasingly being trotted out as a jobs boogeyman. Just last month a former McDonald's exec claimed the existence of AI as an argument against raising the minimum wage: By his flawed reasoning, AI is not just taking human jobs but also acting as a suppressor of human workers' wages.
This is all while we still don't know how good chat bots actually are. It remains to be seen whether Amelia will end up being useful for Enfield council, but it's a little early to make it a political football.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org