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  • Hector Alexander

It's 2020 and AI is calling

This article was published by the Social Care Institute of Excellence on 30 July 2020 https://www.scie.org.uk/care-providers/coronavirus-covid-19/blogs/ai-covid


Times are tough. A quick call can make a difference to someone we know; whether family, friend, colleague or neighbour. We all appreciate the impact a conversation has on a personal level, so I ask that you pick up the phone (after reading this, of course) and make someone's day.


Similarly, AI calls make a difference. They change how big organisations talk with individuals. AI-powered conversations reassure people; making them feel safe and supported. In the future, AI calls might be from your local Council, hospital, community hub, or GP. They will provide information while also collecting details about your needs and well-being. This new normal won't be intrusive but will offer real value, and the greatest beneficiaries will be those who are vulnerable and isolated. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say a new dawn of conversation between people and public bodies is arriving. The impact will be extraordinary.

We've been working with Hammersmith and Fulham Council to show the potential of AI calls. This article is about the need for this technology, its use and the future.


A national challenge


It's well documented: The problem we face is that public bodies do not have the resources to keep an eye on everyone who might need support. I'll repeat this later on – but better information leads to better outcomes. The Covid-19 situation has shown us how vital remote monitoring is to the resilience of our care systems.


It's a challenge that is likely to get worse before getting better. Not only has the pandemic created many vulnerable people that weren't vulnerable before, but the budget deficit will bite. Austerity seems like a long time ago now; however, we must remember that for most of the last decade, adult social care funding fell in real terms (IFS). We can expect austerity to reappear following the pandemic because the UK's budget deficit will reach levels not seen since the end of the Second World War; 50% higher than after 2008 (OBR figures).

Budgets will be cut in response.


One reasonable reaction to cuts is increasing public service digitisation. The benefits are plain. I can see a doctor in 10 minutes; it used to take me a fortnight to secure an appointment. It costs the NHS less.


For many (typically those who are vulnerable), digitisation leads to exclusion. Someone lacking the skills to use digital services is inherently disadvantaged, subsequently worsened by their then-more-likely physical departure. Folkestone comes to mind as a potent example: in three years, two GP surgeries – Park Farm and East Folkestone – which once supported 8,000 people, have now closed. These residents now need to go further afield or rely on digital services.


So, what's the result of all of this? Budget cuts, which look inevitable, will further drive digitisation. But that digitisation needs to be inclusive (for those who do not have digital skills), affordable and reliable to monitor the most vulnerable.


AI calls offer a solution.


Future of conversation


AI calls offer a new way to talk to individuals, at a mass scale, using the landline or mobile phone. At Yokeru, we are the first company to build a platform that makes AI calls, and Hammersmith and Fulham Council has recently pioneered their deployment.


The council used AI calls to make regular direct contact with more than 9,000 shielded individuals during the lockdown. This deployment meant that the Council's staff were able to identify the unmet needs of residents, many of which are suffering from social isolation and loneliness.


The AI calls spoke to residents with an advanced human-like voice. The platform shared information about council services (social prescribing) and asked a series of questions that were answered by respondents using the phone touchpad or spoken answer.


Nearly 1,000 shielded households were identified with unmet needs, and therefore requiring assistance. This outcome would not have been possible using a human operator. Continued traditional call centre usage would have required 225 hours (32 working days, or six working weeks) to monitor all 9,000 shielded households as compared to 10 minutes of AI calls made by Yokeru.


Innovation


By having a conversation with individual people, critical well-being information can be collected and analysed. This data informs the distribution of resources.


Stewart Butterfield, the founder of Slack, has said that "innovation is the sum of change across the whole system, not a thing which causes a change in how people behave." By this measure, Yokeru is a substantial and real innovation. It is not as conspicuous as getting a man to Mars, or self-driving cars (or any of Musk's other projects, in fact), no. For the public bodies that adopt it, however, there will be a dramatic shift in how they spend time, how communication happens with individuals, and how vulnerable people are supported. Surely, too, there will be meaningful changes in outcomes as a result.


As an example, the adoption of AI calls means that public bodies can run regular proactive check-ups with ease. In under an hour, the platform can survey an entire community to identify X or Y problem or to notify of A or B announcement. AI calls are reassuring to individuals and illuminating for public services. Information means improved resource allocation and better outcomes.


Building resilience


Innovation builds resilience in any system, and the pandemic has sped technological progress towards us, with a deep recession in tow. Now we must innovate faster than we thought.


Low cost, rapidly deployable, and instantly effective technology will drive innovation. To quote Butterfield again; 'No small innovation ever caused a large shift in how people spend their time and no large one has ever failed to do so.'


I suspect that the use of AI calls will drive better communication between all organisations and individuals in their communities. As Dr Austen El-Osta, of the Imperial College Department of Primary Care and Public Health, said succinctly of the technology: "The potential gain from leveraging artificial intelligence and information technology to help councils and local authorities identify and support people with unmet needs is a real gamechanger."


I couldn't agree more.

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