ROBOTS IN RETAIL:
Are we being replaced?

8th September, 2016 by Richard Fountain

We have been preconditioned to fear an inevitable robot take over. Sci-Fi disaster movies such as A.I. or i-Robot may seem like a distant, disconnected future but really, robots are being used more often than we may realise.

Professor Klauss Schwab believes we are at the beginning of what he calls 'The Fourth Industrial Revolution'. The latest advances are causing dramatic changes and uncertainty in all industries as we are yet to discover how far technology can be pushed. Right now the possibilities may seem endless, but can technology eventually replace the worker?

Manual tasks

Many businesses are finding robots can be used to complete manual and perhaps mundane work. Simbe robotics have released their first autonomous shelf auditing and analytics robot, Tally, that performs repetitive tasks such as auditing shelves for out of stock items and pricing errors. Similarly, Aloft Hotels unveiled their 'Botlr' back in 2014 to assist with room service deliveries around the clock. In both cases, these robots can navigate the workplace alone and complete menial tasks with little assistance, increasing productivity within the company.

Automation

Automation is not limited to physical robots. Software automation is rapidly developing, allowing businesses to refine their processes and work more effectively. Rather than removing the employee entirely it streamlines their role, eliminating the mundane aspects of a job and allowing them to focus on more important tasks. Products like the RetailReport allow companies to pinpoint the most effective areas of their business and highlight areas that may need more attention. RetailReport is a sales and affordability service that automatically collects mission critical data and converts the information into reports and creates alerts when agreed parameters or benchmarks are reached. Such software is one example of how technology can provide insights and improve efficiency with automation.

Customer Service

With the ability to store and recall more information than humans, robots are being increasingly used in the service industry. Softbot’s humainoid robot, Pepper has been trialed as a waiter in Pizza Huts in Asia. Pepper is able to take orders and payment, make recommendations and provide information on special offers as well as recall calorie information. The ability to recall information humans cannot may be useful but robots are unable to deal with the unexpected and in most cases they are incapable of physically serving food or clearing tables. Robot servers may seem like a novelty and a great marketing tool, but currently they are not superior enough to totally replace human waiters.

Robots have historically been used for transport, muscle and manufacturing, but recent advances mean they aren’t necessarily just useful for carrying heavy boxes. Cutting-edge robots can speak multiple languages, are conversational and most alarmingly – emotional. Sci-Fi films often point out that robots can never have human emotions but with the latest advances they are able to recognise mood, tone of voice and facial movements.

The Fear

Robotics professor, Masahiro Mori developed the ‘Uncanny Valley’ theory that discusses how we feel unnerved, even threatened by robots that look too similar to humans. Studies show that cute and unimposing robots are seen as more trustworthy and so many are designed to be almost baby-like. However, is cuteness merely a disguise for how alarmingly intelligent they are becoming?

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A robot is only as powerful as its software and with recent developments, robots are becoming better at recognising mood and being able to use empathy. Is this the final frontier for a robot take over? With the ability to understand human emotion, robots might not be confined to completing menial tasks but instead develop their own career goals. Experts predict that by 2025 30% of jobs will be taken by robots, some believe it could be more.

Enfield council has already felt this strain as 350 jobs were cut to be replaced by ‘Amelia’ a chatbot that can participate in thousands of conversations at once, make decisions and detect customer emotions. It is only if Amelia cannot answer a question that the customer will be referred on to a human. As consumer behaviour changes, virtual chatbots seem to be growing in popularity, especially in the retail industry. Companies such as Sephora are contacting potential customers via social media apps to engage and suggest products. Technology, especially chatbots, seem to be able to reach customers in a way that previous marketing cannot and while the uncertainty surrounding the high street grows the ability to engage customers is becoming more essential than ever.

Conclusion

The Robot Revolution is exciting but ominous. Robots appeal to business because of their lower costs, efficiency and robots not needing pay, holidays or breaks. Human emotion and empathy has always played in the worker’s favour but recent developments are slowly giving robots these skills. Really, AI and automation is in its infancy and is evolving constantly, but it is changing every aspect of the way we work and live. The immediacy that such advances allow is changing consumer attitudes which in turn, is forcing businesses to equally adapt. There is a great sense of optimism that comes with the endless opportunities technology offers but the unease is just as great. Are we being replaced? At the moment it’s hard to say but as Prof. Schwabb discusses in The Fourth Industrial Revolution, we must remember that “all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people.”

If you would like to find out more about how automation could assist your business contact us on 01279 215 915 or email enquiries@retailreport.com.