A few months into my time as an insurance claims adjuster, a customer called and said he thought his house was breaking apart. He'd heard what sounded like wood beams snapping in the basement, so he went downstairs and crept into the crawl space to investigate.
While he was lying in the dark surrounded by cement, he told me, he started to panic. It brought him back to years earlier when, as a firefighter with the Fire Department of New York City, he served as a first responder on September 11, crawling through the giant blocks of brick and mortar that had collapsed hours earlier.
This revelation came 10 or 15 minutes into our conversation, after I'd gathered his basic information and logged the details of the case. He'd been friendly, even lighthearted (if a little excitable) for the first part of it. But recalling his moment of anxiety, his voice quivered.
To an extent, I was able to relate. My father was a captain in the FDNY on September 11. He, too, spent the hours, days, and weeks that followed at Ground Zero, digging around in the rubble and coming home covered in dust. I know that he, too, has painful memories stored away in the deep parts of his mind.
I relayed this to the man on the other line. We talked for a few minutes about that day and its aftermath, and then I brought the conversation back to what was going to happen with his claim. He asked if it was okay if he called back just to chat if he needed to.
A few hours later, he did just that. I don't remember exactly what we talked about, but I remember he was calm, he used my name a lot, and he thanked me.
These are the experiences I'd argue that artificial intelligence cannot fully replace. Or can it?
Case in point: Fukoku Mutual, an insurance firm in Japan, is replacing 34 claims adjusters with AI. According to a press release from the company, the system, which uses the technology found in IBM's Watson, will be able to study factors including the length of a hospital stay, procedures performed, and the patient's medical history to determine a payout.
Benefits of using the system, according to the release, include improving operating efficiency by 30 percent. Japanese publication The Mainichi reports that it will save the company $1.2 million (140 million yen) in wages annually.
Fukoku is just the latest example of a company testing the promises of artificial intelligence. It's clear that AI is getting increasingly sophisticated at doing what humans do--but more efficiently and cheaply. What's less clear is whether or not those gains trump the huge implications it would have for the future of work.
There's a big temptation for businesses to use artificial intelligence to shave off time and money wherever they can, but experts say that's not the smartest use of the technology.
"I actually think that's the worst reason to automate things," says Josh Sutton, global head of data and AI at marketing giant Publicis-Sapient. "Over time, it's a losing proposition. It's a race to the bottom." Improving the customer experience and creating new revenue sources are much better applications of AI, he says.
In the case of Fukoku Mutual, the more noble objective is getting customers a decision--and a payout--faster, which the company claims the system will accomplish. The company I worked for, which was one of the largest insurance providers in the U.S., made this the No. 1 priority, citing evidence that customer satisfaction is most closely related to the speed with which a payout is made.
But, as adjusters, we were also trained incessantly on our bedside manners. Someone who calls a home insurance firm is usually in a vulnerable place--and sometimes in full-blown crisis mode--so it was essential that a touch of humanity was included.
The question, then, is whether computers will ever have an emotional intelligence interchangeable with that of humans.