How May I Help You, Human?

Dr. Marie Puybaraud, global head of research for JLL, explores how we can embrace robots in the workplace and compensate for the inevitable lack of face-to-face interaction.

Group of tin Horikawa toy robots from the '60s and '70s. Image via mrmercury.webs.com.
Group of tin Horikawa toy robots from the ’60s and ’70s. Image via mrmercury.webs.com.

In Rana el Kaliouby‘s recent TED Talk, she talked about how emotions influence every aspect of our lives, from how we learn and communicate to how we make decisions. In a world that too often revolves around online communication, the pitfalls of relying too heavily on digital experiences can impact not just how we interact with machines, but with each other.

Today, our industry is contemplating how it will embrace the cyber world and compensate for the inevitable lack of face-to-face interaction. How would we feel stepping in to an office managed solely by robots? How do you feel about staying at a hotel where 90 percent of the staff is automated?

According to a recent WinterGreen Research report, the worldwide industrial robot market will grow at 11.5 percent annually and reach $48.9 billion by 2021. Frost & Sullivan estimates that there will be 26 million delivery drones, autonomous driverless cars, and robots working in smart factories, warehouses, and distribution centers by 2020. We need to question the limits of robotics and cybercare while we consider the level of emotional engagement necessary in the delivery of high-touch services within our industry.

Image via The Japan Times.
The humanoid robot at the Tokyo branch of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi. Image via The Japan Times.

Consider the following examples of robots in the workplace:

The steps to integrate robotic solutions in our industry are complex, and our market is not quite mature enough to embrace them. For example:

  • Robotics solutions tailored to our industry are scarce and not always adapted to our needs. For example, retail robots reduce costs and improve efficiency by performing menial sales tasks, freeing employees to assist customers with higher value interactions. But few off-the-shelf solutions are available today.
  • The ROI is long for large-scale robotics solutions, which have not even been fully tested. Amazon would have to spend roughly $300 million annually to support a full drone delivery program. With 400 million packages delivered for $300 million in operating expenses and a $100 million capital investment, Amazon could earn a healthy return by pricing the service at $1 per delivery.
  • One-off solutions are economically sustainable and will not radically transform your business, but they will provide an impressive experience. Robots are not likely to replace entire sales staffs, but estimates show them being economical at today’s price if they’re used for 10 hours of employee-equivalent work per week.
  • End-users and customers are not ready to accept this level of interaction for complex and sensitive matters. Ross Dawson, a futurist and entrepreneur, argues that “physical retail is highly challenged by online alternatives. Cost efficiency pressures and the drive to create unique experiences in a physical store mean that robots will become commonplace in retail in the relatively near future.”
Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

The drive for more emotional engagement as our world is invaded by cybortic solutions is gaining steam. We know that high-quality service delivery encapsulates a high human touch, and that emotions are inherent to experience. Sustainable human relationships are driven by emotional behavior, and robots are not yet able to mimic natural human emotional signal.

The compromise may lie in a high-tech, high human-touch solution whenever possible. To meet the future growth of human-to-machine interfaces in your own workplace, I’d suggest starting with test trials of robotic solutions, like cleaning robots, robot concierge (meet-and-greet), robot cyborgs, and concierge kiosks. From there, you’d have to maintain high levels of investment in cybercare solutions, like online helpdesks and queueing solutions. Finally, you’d need to create a roadmap to integrate cybortic solutions in your business, like emerging concepts and costs and return on investment.

By implementing these strategies, you’ll be able to better embrace the cybortic world in your workplace, and compensate for the inevitable lack of face-to-face interaction.

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