Most of us think that robots are pretty cool when they’re entertaining us or carrying out dangerous, boring, or routine tasks, but they also make us nervous. Whenever a retailer announces some new use for robots, either in-store and for fulfilment purposes, our hearts sink. It might feel as if you’re talking to a robot when trying to get through to customer service with instructions to ‘press 1’ for this and ‘press 2’ for that, but the investment in robot technology looks as if it’s finally starting to pay off.
No longer just the fantasy creatures of science fiction, robots now have the potential to reduce costs and improve customer experiences while working alongside (or even in some cases replacing) humans. Of course robots have been part of the factory shopfloor, car assembly line and space exploration industry for years, but until recently robots have not turned out to be nearly as intelligently evolved (or financially viable) as had once been hoped. Fully autonomous robots only appeared in the second half of the 20th century with the first digitally operated and programmable robot, the Unimate, being installed at General Motors in 1961, but now things seem to be moving quickly.
Evidence of what they can and can’t do is growing. For example, in Japan, a hotel partially staffed by robots has just opened at the Dutch-themed Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Nagasaki. The Henn Na Hotel has 10 robots resembling multilingual humans who greet guests upon arrival and usher them to reception, while other more minimal robots serve coffee, carry luggage up to the rooms, entertain guests and perform general concierge duties. The hotel insists that the robots are not just a gimmick, but a genuine technological attempt to deal with the ageing Japanese population (25.9% of whom are currently aged 65 or above) and the resulting reduction in size of the workforce. (Patrons will be reassured to know however that real human beings are still in charge of security).
The Japanese banking sector, in the shape of the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ also took a first step towards employing non-human staff earlier this year with the introduction of a customer service humanoid robot at its flagship Tokyo branch. The robot, called Nao (currently the most-sold humanoid research and educational robot in the world) speaks 19 languages, can answer basic questions and – crucially – can analyse customers’ facial expressions and behaviour.
Standing 58cm (23”) tall and weighing 5.4 kg (11.9 lb), Nao works in the reception area and the bank hopes that it will be especially popular with foreign visitors during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. According to Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Japan is anticipating a tenfold increase in the market of robots and robot technology by 2035.
And it’s not just in assisting and information-giving roles; the idea of using robotics to care for the elderly is also being trialled everywhere from Singapore to Salford. It’s a simple way of freeing up staff time for the more hard-to-replicate human interaction for instance by tasking robots with carrying trays and checking defibrillators are always present and in the right place. The global market for industrial robots has grown by about 60% in the last five years in monetary terms and the question now is ‘are they sophisticated enough and empathetic enough to replace human beings in customer service type roles?’
Well, despite the progress, received wisdom is that robots replacing human beings is a long way off and moving towards it will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The main reason for this is that the technology exists, but we humans, it seems, are not quite ready for interacting with robots on a regular basis so there is a big sociological gap to be crossed first.
Japanese robotics professor, Masahiro Mori, has come up with a theory, known as the ‘uncanny valley’, which states that as the appearance of a robot is made more human, humans’ emotional response to the robot will become increasingly positive up until the point where the robot becomes too human-like, and then the response quickly becomes that of fear or revulsion. Then as the robot’s appearance continues to become more realistic and similar to that of a normal-looking human being again, the emotional response becomes positive once again.
So put simply, things that look a bit human, but are clearly not human —C-3PO (in Star Wars) or a Dalek (in Dr Who) — are acceptable and even welcomed by humans; but things that look a bit human, but are clearly not quite right as human beings – such as a ventriloquist’s dummy, or a clown — can produce a negative or even violent reaction. Research has shown that this negative reaction to ‘near-but-not-quite-accurate’ realism is probably an evolutionary response.
This sort of reaction is important when putting robots in customer-facing jobs and while robots are good at processing routine things quickly to a consistently high standard, the lack of skills such as creative problem-solving, intuition, creativity, innovation, compassion, imagination and so on could prove to be a drawback that keep customer service jobs safe – for the time being.