Three ways that robots will impact customer experience

Humans have always been fascinated with artificial ‘servants’. Even if the first digitally operated and programmable robot was only invented in 1954 by George Devol, our interest in the matter goes way back. Just think of the talking mechanical handmaidens that the Greek god Hephaestus built out of gold or the clay golems of Jewish legend. That’s probably why most of us think of the humanoid version when we think of robots, though they mostly come in all other shapes and sizes.

I too, have always been greatly enraptured by robots, ever since I was a kid, and today, too, with fantastic films and series like ex-Machina and Westworld. And lately, while writing my latest business book, I’ve been thinking a lot about how robotics will change the customer experience. The interesting part of robotics is of course their physical part. AI is fantastic, but it only becomes really interesting when it receives a ‘body’ – like a car or a robot arm – so that it can physically interact with the world.

The first wave of digitization was all about transforming atoms into bits (like records, cassettes and books into files). But when the smart bits are given a ‘vessel’ that can interact with our physical environment, we will truly be moving into a whole new phase.

The way I see it, there are three levels – which are the basis of my upcoming book (release in September 2020) – in which robotics will impact the customer experience, based upon the ever-changing needs and demands of today’s fickle consumer:

  1. Offering the ultimate convenience
  2. Helping people realize their hopes and dreams
  3. Contributing to society

The ultimate convenience

This might be the most common class of today’s customer-facing robots. Some are still quite gimmicky, like the robotic laundry folding machine Foldimate. Others are pretty basic – like the Roomba vacuum cleaner we have at home or the Gita cargo bot and Travelmate that both can carry your stuff around – but they are such a great way to help you save time or energy. And let’s not forget the more advanced examples like the no fuss self-checkout Amazon Go stores in the US. Or the delivery robots like those of Starship Technologies that have been booming since the COViD-19 social distancing quarantine.

There are also many examples of convenient robots that are not quite ‘there’ yet (because they are too expensive or the technology needs some adjustment) but which show an enormous potential for making our lives so much easier in the coming years. I love the example of The Moley Robotic kitchen, for instance: a fully automated cooking robot that can prepare meals and is apparently even capable of learning new recipes and cleaning up after itself. Just think of all the time you could save or how healthy you could keep eating (instead of ordering greasy take-out or heating up a frozen pizza because you don’t have the energy or time to prepare a home cooked meal for yourself). And then there are of course the autonomous cars that promise to allow us to work, relax, learn, work-out or sleep while we get from point A to B. I personally can’t wait for that to happen.

Hopes & Dreams

One level up, I believe that robotics will also be able to help us achieve some of our hopes and dreams as well. I love the example of the exoskeletons, for instance, giving people superhuman powers: like in the case of that French man who was able to move all four of his paralysed limbs with a mind-controlled exoskeleton suit.

Robots that help children develop and learn would also fall under this category. Like New York-based Elemental Path’s Cognitoys, which are dinosaur-shaped toys that teach kids how to count, how to create stories together, remember colors and more. Or more healthcare-oriented ones like Samsung that is working on a range of care robots which would do a number of tasks around the home like remind you when to take your medicine, act as a heart rate monitor, and if the worst happens phone emergency services for help.

Saving the world

This could maybe be my favorite category, because this is the part where robotics could really make a difference for changing the world. It’s when they are used to help special-needs children, assist with disaster relief, try to keep the elderly as long as possible autonomously at home, help clean up the plastic mess in the oceans or even help fight loneliness, one of today’s nastiest challenges.

The start-up No Isolation, for instance, developed a small telepresence robot, AV1, for children suffering from long-term illness to reduce their loneliness. It makes it possible for kids to participate in school and the daily life of the class. The Leka robot for special-needs children helps them to better understand social and visual cues. It’s shaped like a ball and face that changes expressions. It also uses sound, light, and colors to interact. Honda, then, is working on a flexible, strong and waterproof disaster relief robot, the ‘E2-DR’, that can grasp bars, adjust its hips and walk in a human-like manner. It is capable of handling a variety of different potential issues caused in a disastrous situation.

When ‘normal’ convenience becomes saving the world

One of the things that struck me most during the COVID-19 crisis (apart from how many companies and people have shown compassion and tried to help out as much as they could, of course) was this: what we would once just have considered as merely a convenient robot, suddenly became crucial in saving the lives of many. So what we conceive as ‘saving the world’ seems to be increasingly fluid and unexpected these days. Just think of the increased amount of Starship and other robots that deliver food and medicines to citizens as well as hospitals. Or cleaning and disinfectant robots used to sterilise ambulances, hospitals, shops and supermarkets: like Hong Kong’s subway operator MTR (Mass Transit Railway) that deployed a fleet of mini-fridge-sized robots to help deep disinfect its trains and stations.

I’m sure that many companies see the use of robotics to improve customer experience as some far away utopia, with mostly pure gimmicky examples in today’s reality. But robotics are moving fast (some of them have even been sped by by the COVID-19 crisis) and the industry lines are blurring (if you are a hotel chain or an airline industry, imagine wat self-driving sleep-module cars could mean for you), so my advice would definitely be to investigate how you could use a robot to achieve a better customer experience.