Robotic technology may be familiar in manufacturing and distribution, but a new generation of humanoid robots may soon be replacing shop assistants and customer service staff. Penelope Ody investigates.
Those with long memories may recall a futuristic video from the 1990s predicting 21st century retailing, and featuring a hologram personal sales assistant who appeared – rather like Princess Leia in the first Star Wars movie – in front of shoppers as they entered the store. The personal assistant offered to fulfil the customer’s every demand and came equipped with knowledge of their previous purchases, wish list, and current needs.
Such virtual sales staff have appeared in recent years, in the likes of Asda and Harvey Nichols, but they tend to come under the “digital signage” category and their conversation is rather limited. Intelligent holograms may still be some way off, but robotic customer service assistants are not. Already developers, such as Aldebaran, are supplying robots that can respond to customer queries, deliver product information and even talk to shoppers as they browse or wait for a “live” member of the sales team. Nao – a 58cm humanoid figure – began work in trial branches of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group in Japan in April. The robot is equipped with cameras on its forehead and directional microphones instead of ears and, reputedly, can assess a shopper’s emotions using facial analytics and tone of voice, speak 19 languages, and answer service queries about such things as opening a bank account or sending money abroad. According to Takuma Nomoto, Chief Manager of Information Technology Initiatives at the bank, “Robots can supplement services by performing tasks that our human workers can’t, such as 24-hour banking and multi-lingual communication.”
Nao’s big brother a 120cm tall robot, known as Pepper, is already hard at work as a sales assistant in around 74 of SoftBank Mobile’s branches in Japan. It greets customers, uses a touch screen to provide product information and collects shopper feedback. Pepper is also being rolled out at up to 1,000 stores in Japan by Nestlé, where it promotes espresso coffee machines and can, according to Aldebaran, understand 80% of conversations with artificial intelligence constantly expanding it’s conversational skills as it listens to more customers.
As John Andrews, CEO of the International Omni Retailing Markets Association (IORMA), points out, the Japanese “rather like their robots to be humanoid, but that is not necessary. For many service industries – including retailing – labour costs represent a high proportion of overheads. Customers also increasingly expect whatever it is they want to be done that day – which is going to push up those costs even further. As any new technology becomes familiar in one sector it gradually becomes the norm for others, so it is inevitable that we’ll see greater use of robotics: but those ‘robots’ don’t have to be humanoid – they could be tools on a smart phone.”
Robotic equipment is long-established in manufacturing, but with the addition of artificial intelligence (AI) such systems can rapidly ‘learn’ new skills – be that moving products around or interacting with customers. As the demands of ecommerce fulfilment continue to grow, robotic systems are also taking over in the warehouse. Swisslog, for example, has developed a fleet of robotic vehicles, called Carrypick, which deliver mobile racks to pick stations for piece picking in order to reduce fulfilment times. While Amazon’s preoccupation with delivery drones has been widely reported, DHL is currently using them to deliver medicines and urgent supplies to Juist, a sandbar island 12km into the North Sea from the German coast with 2,000 inhabitants. With collect from store orders steadily increasing some sort of robotic system may well become essential in-store in future to streamline parcel handling and collection.
Another of those futuristic videos from the 1990s, this one from IBM, used to demonstrate the ultimate self-service store with a customer stalking the aisles of a supermarket and filling his copious pockets with assorted goodies before bypassing the checkout and walking straight out. Here item-level RFID labels and contactless payment systems were predicted to enable assistant-free selling: add robotic shelf-fillers and a suitable security system to ensure that contactless payment really is made and such levels of “self-service” could become a possibility.
Robotics is certainly attracting some major players: while Aldebaran is owned by SoftBank Mobile, Boston Dynamics is a Google subsidiary which has developed a fleet of robots some rather less humanoid in appearance than Nao and Pepper. One, named Atlas – a tough guy that can carry heavy goods and “pick its way through congested spaces” – could, one day, be put in a driverless car as an alternative to today’s delivery van and driver.
Sheffield Robotics is involved with iCub, a humanoid robot, which is also being imbued with a “sense of self” and an ability to understand meaning, not just words.
IS YOUR JOB SAFE?
It may all sound rather far-fetched, but the potential for robots and AI to replace many existing jobs is becoming a major concern for many governments. Semi-skilled and unskilled workers may seem the obvious losers, but robots like iCub could also move that potential job replacement towards the “skilled” sector.
Estimates of how many jobs robots could ultimately replace vary. A study by Oxford academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, suggested that a third of UK jobs could be replaced within 20 years, with those paying £30,000 or less five times as likely to go as those which command a salary of £100,000 or more. A second report last year from the Pew Research Center found that 48% of the experts it surveyed believed that robots and AI would have “displaced more jobs than they create by 2025”. Among the many comments the study records from its various participants are such predictions as:
❚ “businesses will be reluctant to hire people to perform tasks that can be performed by robots, digital agents, or AI applications;”
❚ “Many jobs – truck drivers, customer support, light assembly, bank tellers and store checkout staff – will be diminished”;
❚ “[robots] will replace low level information workers such as teachers, lawyers and librarians.”
If such predictions are even halfway true, universal employment will become a thing of the past with major implications for society. Andrews is already involved with the BIG concept – the “basic income guarantee” – currently preoccupying various governments worldwide. “Although 50% of existing jobs may disappear, new types of employment will emerge,” he says. “Instead of sales assistants, retailers will need data scientists for example, but many people will not find jobs; so do we educate children for a different future if there is no longer mass employment? And if large numbers of people are out of work and dependent on BIG they can’t afford to buy things, so will we see margins being squeezed to make items more affordable?”
For tomorrow’s retailers not only will shopping be omnichannel, but with significant numbers of customers on minimal BIG support, costs will need to be trimmed by using robotics and AI to replace warehouse workers, numerous grades of shop-floor staff, and the delivery fleet. As John Andrews says: “All technology is evolution and it is not going away – you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Whatever happens, it looks like a bumpy ride ahead for retailing.”