The robots are coming: a look at the future of service experience

J. N. Halm

The beautiful borough of Enfield in North London should go down in history as the first place these aliens made their boldest statement. On June 27, 1967 customers of Barclays Bank in that town were presented with a machine that could dispense cash. That seemingly insignificant matter was a significant march in a revolution that had started centuries earlier.

Barely two years after the Enfield incident—exactly on September 2, 1969—there was another statement of intent made at the Chemical Bank in a Nassau County, New York suburb of Rockville Centre. Another machine was outdoored that day outside the premises of the bank.

Although both of those machines could only dispense cash, they were very important ancestors of a tribe that was soon to take over the world—the tribe of robots. The tribe of machines that carry out series of actions automatically had sent some of the earliest predecessors, ahead of time.

There have always been records of self-operating machines throughout civilisation. However, in the early decades of 20th century, the first real attempts were made to unleash more humanoid robots on to the world. For the past 100 years, these machines have been getting more and more sophisticated.

What is even more impressive about robots is their pervasiveness. It is a common sight to see robots in large assembling plants building anything from rockets, aeroplanes, cars, washing machines and even other robots. As matter of fact, General Motors had even employed Unimate, widely accepted as the first industrial robot, in its assembling plant in Trenton, New Jersey as far back as 1959. In large factories, lifting very heavy machinery as well as dealing with dangerous chemicals were the preserve of these machines.

There are robots helping in defence. Many armies are making use of professional service robots in combat operations. Although a majority of these robots are not equipped with weapons, they are still useful in reconnaissance, surveillance, sniper detection, and diffusing dangerous explosive devices, among other military operations.

There are robots in the field of medicine. Some are actually now taking over from surgeons. They are diagnosing patients and some have even begun operating on patients.

Robots are also being sent to places that would be too dangerous for human beings to go. We are sending robots under the sea and we are also sending them to walk other bodies in our solar system. The surface of our sister planet Mars has been traversed on several occasions by robotic rovers.

Robots are also being used in the entertainment industry. Robots are fighting for the entertainment of spectators. “Battlebots”. That is what they are called. Even toymakers are also placing more and more robots in the hands of our children, preparing the next generation for what is to come.

The household of the future is going to be effectively run by robots. As assistants, household robots will mow the lawn, vacuum clean the carpet, wash the car and might even cook.

I daresay we even have flying robots. What are those sophisticated drones, if not flying robots? Referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are transporting just about anything that is light enough to be flown. Carrying much-needed medical supplies to remote and inaccessible areas, these robots are saving lives by the day.

Evidently, in almost every facet of society, robots are having an impact. As a matter of fact, the only way to describe what is happening is an “invasion”. Yes, there is a real robot invasion here and now.

It is therefore not surprising that the world of business is also not being spared this assault. With the ATM having opened the way into the business world, other robots have followed suit. Wherever there was a possibility of they making work easier, robots were brought in to help. At a very basic level, robots are just machines that can act independently or semi-autonomously. This by itself was interesting enough. The stakes were however driven higher when the programs that run these robots became much, much more sophisticated.

The advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has taken the robot invasion to new heights. Now, more than ever before in history, the lines between robots and humans have become the most blurred. The confluence of more advanced hardware and highly sophisticated programs that are equalling and even beating human intelligence in many circumstances have changed the game for good.

Of the robots that are gradually leaving their mark on the business terrain, one tribe has begun to even take on more human characteristics. Enter the chatbots! What started as an attempt at responding to a question by an English mathematician and computer scientist has gradually become an intriguing phenomenon in the world of robotics. Sometime in 1950, Alan Turing, a man widely considered as the father of computer science as a discipline, wondered if it was possible for a machine to exhibit intelligent behaviour exactly as that of a human. This became known as the Turing Test.

By 1966, the first recognised chatbot named ELIZA had been birthed. Six years later, another chatbot appeared on the scene named PARRY. DR. SBAITSO came in 1992, followed by ALICE in 1995. Since then, many more chatterbots, as they were originally called, have appeared on the scene—each new bot a lot more refined than the one preceding it.

Using acronyms from complicated computer talk, these robots are mostly given human-sounding names. Anthropomorphism, that is what the attribution of human characteristics to inanimate objects, is called. With these names and addition of more humanlike properties, such as humour, to their features, chatbots have gradually taken over many functions in the office.

Chatbots are the new Customer Service, Marketing and Sales executives. Because they never sleep, take coffee breaks and do not take sick days off, chatbots are the ones doing a majority of the routine jobs in offices nowadays. Chatbots are the ones who have been sending us text messages from companies these days. They are the ones answering a chunk of the queries we send to businesses.

That lady, the one with the sweet voice, who took your through the process of placing your order with the business could well have been a chatbot. The customer contact employee who helped booked a place for you at the last event you attended was probably a chatbot. The helpful customer-handling professional who sorted through the large inventory and even made recommendations for you might be in all probability a robot. The funny lady who exchanged messages with you the last time you browse through the website of the company could be another. They are all over the place. You have been dealing with them without knowing.

It has been predicted that in the near future “conversations with autonomous agents will be more common for the average individual than conversations with a spouse.” And you cannot blame businesses for going for these bots. The benefits are just too tempting to resist.

A study published in the May 2021 edition of the Information Systems Research journal found that making chatbots more human was beneficial for the outcomes of business transactions. Titled, Estimating the Impact of “Humanizing” Customer Service Chatbots,” the study found that making robots more human-like had the potential of increasing the trust of customers, which lead to an increase in the conversion rate. This eventually also resulted in an increase in the satisfaction of customers.

It is however important to note that customers tend to become more sensitive to offers that are presented by more human-like chatbots. The reason given by the researchers for this phenomenon is that humans believe that other people have ulterior motives when putting out a product or service. Therefore when chatbots become more human like, customers begin to suspect that these “bots” might also have similar ulterior motives. Although there have also been reported cases were customers had expressed anxiety and mistrust of robots that behave more like humans, the advantages of employing robots as customer handling interfaces are far too much for business to pass up.

Admittedly, the heading of this piece does not do justice to the gist of the write-up.  The truth is that the robots are not coming. They are already here. They have been around for decades, especially in more advanced countries. Having gotten settled in these jurisdictions, it is only a matter of time before they start heading towards our part of the world.

It might have taken the humble ATM more than 30 years to move from Enfield in North London to that branch of erstwhile The Trust Bank in Accra. Things are sure to move faster these days. The latest breed of robots will not take three decades to get to Accra. They are just around the corner. The days when customers will walk into a banking hall and would be greeted by a talking and walking ATM is not too far away.

This is where smart and forward-looking businesses come in. They care enough about customers that they invest in the technology of the future. They do not wait to follow. They lead. By so doing, they do not only enhance the experience of their customers, but they also acquire the pioneer’s advantage. These organisations know that not being abreast with newest technology has led to the demise great businesses in the past. The progressive businesses therefore ensure that they prepare for the future before the future appears—a future where smart robots will play an increasingly important role in the customer’s experience.

And you thought I-Robot was just a Hollywood movie!

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