Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Robots that attract…When the intelligent machines take over


In my experience, being smart is preparing for the inevitable. Or at worst, just facing the inevitable as soon as possible. As it is amusingly put by many, “A blow which is inevitably yours, earlier encountered, extricate you from torrential hostilities and further encumbrances.” It is smart to properly anticipate what is ahead and to do something about it.

I have said it once and I will say it again, the robots are coming. I mean, the service robots, those which would pretty much look like us and even mimic some of our most human attributes. Humanoid service robots can either operate fully on their own or they might need the intervention of humans. As a matter of fact, they are not “coming”. They are already here. These robots are actually in existence, in many homes around the world.

The days are upon us when one will walk into a shop and have a wonderful conversation with a front-line employee, only to realize later that the employee was not human but a humanoid service robot. Robots that aid customers get around the office space smoothly are here. Technology will definitely see to this happening. When one considers the endless possibilities of what service robots, infused with the most powerful artificial intelligence (AI) systems can do, it is not farfetched to see a day and a time when we will be seeing one around every corner. The smart thing to do therefore is to prepare for that day.

Why am I so confident the arrival of service robots is a matter of “when” not “if”? Because it is already happening elsewhere. Unfortunately, as has become a sad trend, Africa, or should I say sub-Saharan Africa is still lagging behind the technological curve. But as surely as other technologies advances slowly but eventually catch up with us, the days of service robots manning the front line will surely arrive.

The truth is that over the past couple of years, the numbers of these service robots have increased substantially. As the technology has advanced significantly, so has their numbers. The statistics are mind-boggling. It has been estimated that more than 400,000 of these service robots are released on to the market annually. It is said that currently there are more than 2.7 million robots employed industrially around the world. In countries such as Japan and South Korea, the numbers are just impressive. As the population of these industrialised societies increasingly becomes aged, they are having to turn more and more to their intelligent machines.

The numbers of service robots will only continue to go up, from all indications. As a matter of fact, one study predicts that the current numbers will go up by as high as 40% by the year 2024. This is another reason why it is only a matter of time before we see them walking and working in malls and supermarkets in this part of world soon enough. I actually foresee a time, in the not-too-distant future, when slightly-used (or secondhand) robots will be making an entry into our part of the world.

It is therefore not surprising that researchers and academics have been giving a lot of attention to the emergence of these machines. One of such research studies was published in the May 2021 edition of the Journal of Business Research. The study was titled “From stopping to shopping: An observational study comparing a humanoid service robot with a tablet service kiosk to attract and convert shoppers”.

The study sought to compare what customers would do when they had to deal with a service robot and when they had to use another means to get served. In this case, the alternative was a tablet service kiosk. Unless you have not been on this planet for a while now, you will definitely have come across those self-service mounted desks in service areas in many organisations all around. They are found in banking halls. They are found in malls. They are found in hotels. They are found at airports. These are the computer screens that allow customers to perform one task or the other, all on their own.

In my bank, it is used by customers to get tickets that allow a place in a queue. But in many cases, these computers are provided so that customers can get information readily, without having to wait in line to talk to a customer-facing employee. In some places, these tablets or computers are placed in kiosks while in some other places they are just mounted on stands and placed right within the customer reception area.

The aforementioned Journal of Business Research study compared the behaviour of customers when it came to either dealing with a humanoid service robot or using a tablet service kiosk. The results of that study made one of the strongest business cases for the adoption of humanoid service robots. According to the results, the robots were 26 times more likely to attract the attention of customers and subsequently engage customers more than the self-service tablets.

The results also proved that customers spent more than 50% more time with the robots than they did with the self-service computers. It was clear from the study that deploying humanoid service robots was a very good business move. It was found that customers were more attracted to shops that had a robot at the entrance, and were more likely to enter those shops.

As if that was not enough, the researchers also found that customers spent a lot more money in those shops that had robots interfacing with customers. Although this was just a single study, its findings must be treated with all seriousness because the findings are not far-fetched. It will not be strange to see people attracted by a robot to looks like and talks like a person. The truth is that the proliferation of electronic devices including phones, tablets and desktop computers means that customers have become almost immune to the attracting power of these gadgets. This is another place where robots will have one over these other gadgets.

If for nothing at all, the sheer curiosity of people will be enough to push them towards the robot. People who have never seen a real-life humanoid robot will just want to get close to see how it functions. There are those customers who would just shop at a particular outlet with a service robot so that they can tell others about it. Customers, human as they are, can be very interesting. I can easily imagine some customers taking selfies with the robot, just so that they can post same on their social media pages.

Interestingly, some of those who have already had the opportunity to interact with these humanoid service robots have claimed that it actually felt like being in the presence of a real human. There are however, others who have claimed that being with these human-looking machines made them feel some kind of discomfort. These people stated that the fact that these robots looked too humanlike was the reason for their discomfort. All these add to the intrigue surrounding those robots who look so much like us—and thus their power to attract.

In a retail setting, customers have to be first attracted into a store. When they enter, something must engage them or maintain the attention of customers. Thereafter, the customer must be induced or lured into making a purchase. The last stage of the process will be for the customer to take action and to make a purchase. This last stage is what all businesses look forward to when they think of the customer. It is however, important to note that the final sale will not happen if the customer is not attracted by something for the one to enter the store.

Attracting the attention of customers is not going to go away any time soon. For as long as there are customers, there will always be a need for businesses to find ways of getting the attention of these customers. As a matter of fact, those who are old enough will easily recall that the defunct Kingsway Department Store in Accra had a huge human-size doll that drew a lot of customers into the store. That was decades ago but the principles remain the same. The need to draw customers into any retail establishment is still there. To the extent that, the same principle applies, even if the business is not a brick-and-mortar establishment but a fully online operation. Online businesses also have a need to attract customers to their online shops.

In an environment with intense competition, this need to attract customers is even more acute. As retailers continue to search for more and more innovative ways of attracting customers, it is only a matter of time before they start deploying our smart robotic colleagues to man the front line. And if current studies are anything to go by, then that would be a very smart business move. It might cost a little more to get a humanoid service robot than just mounting a self-service computer. In the end, though, it would be all worth it.

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