meet the robots - and see how they can change the customer experience

When I entered the Mitsubishi department store in the centre of Tokyo recently I was welcomed by a beautiful Japanese lady in a kimono. It took me a while to realise that she was a robot, Aiko Chihira, a humanoid greeter robot just installed by Toshiba.

I came across other robotic adoptions - the guide in the museum and humanoid robots also landed jobs as sales people at Nestle stores in Japan. In 2015 also the first robotic staffed hotel opened near Nagasaki, Japan. One of Japan’s mega banks, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, showcased NAO, a robot bank teller in its down-town Tokyo branch, hoping that the multilingual robot will help foreign customers during the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. 

In fact, in Japan, the robotic revolution has started. The Japanese want to spread the use of robotics from large-scale factories to every corner of the economy and society. They expect big business from this - to grow sales from 600 billion yen to 2.4 trillion by 2020.

Since 2010, the demand for industrial robots has accelerated considerably, as part of the ongoing trend towards automation and the continued innovation and technical improvements of industrial robots. In 2014, robot sales globally increased by 29% to 229,261 units, by far the highest level ever recorded for one year. The automotive parts suppliers and the electrical / electronics industry were the main drivers of the growth. Chinas has considerably expanded its leading position as the biggest market with a share of 25% of the total supply in 2014. 75% of all robotic sales have gone to five countries: China, Japan, the United States, the Republic of Korea and Germany. 

What can robots do? Telepresence let you head to the office from anywhere in the world - or participate in international meetings, getting your sales force or decentralised workers closer, or it allows you to participate at a conference in Hamburg from Tokyo - as in our new generation airport panel at the Hamburg Aviation Conference 2016 - or any other city in the world.

Robots also allow to supplement services by performing tasks that human workers can’t do, or which might create difficulties, such as 24-hour banking and customer service, multilingual communication, carrying heavy suitcases or ensuring cleanliness in public places at any moment.

Robots can also help to improve productivity in a variety of sectors, from manufacturing to medical services and nursing care, to agriculture, construction, infrastructure and transport. 

Robots could turn the airport experience into magic again. At Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, tests are on their way to use robots to clean the terminal, carry heavy objects and personal bags and transport cargo. Cyberdyne and Haneda want to pioneer robot technology that’s used in airports, based on these initial robots’ performance. Maybe future usage can include the personal concierge, picking up a family with their luggage at the car or train they arrive with and guiding them through security and through the airport. 

JAL Japan Airlines have started to test robots at Haneda for customer service. The same French robot model as used by Japanese banks delivers information in Japanese, English and Chinese about flight schedules, weather conditions at the destination, check in formalities and other customer questions. 

Google initiatives to develop driverless cars and other technologies are based on robotic intelligence. In China, METI already employs more robots than in Japan. Beijing targets domestic sales of industrial robots of 3 trillion yuan by 2020, a tenfold rise on the current level. In Korea, Robot Land, a $600 million theme park is due to open next year, and the Korean robotic industry is currently ranked fourth globally. 

A Japanese agriculture technology company has just announced that they plan to open a robot-run lettuce farm by mid 2017. The only thing the robots will not do is plant the seeds. 

Critics might say this will reduce travelling. I see this differently. Telepresence allows to involve your staff working abroad - and making them part of the team and a joint strategy, rather than working in silos. It can also help to improve services by communicating in several languages with customers  as tested by the Mitsubishi Bank of Tokyo, or lift heavy goods and ensure consistent cleaning. It also allows to involve people with knowledge and experience who might otherwise not have joined. This can apply for workshops, conferences, meetings and remote working models as well as remote mentoring - your best match can suddenly be found world wide.

Japan also sees robots as a potential solution to its rapidly ageing society, with citizens above 65 making up a quarter of the population and social security cost reaching a record high. In Western societies this is rather regarded as a threat to employment, with an effect similar to the Industrial Revolution.  

Yet the future lies in more automation - instead of more robots for customer service we will see more self-checkout counters, mobile self service and this kind of automation to improve customer service and increase efficiency. Automation needs to be done in a human and personalised way. And the human part needs to come in where it adds value and solve problems. We still have to find the right way of how to deal with this digital society instead of fearing it. 

Robots are just an extension to make technology a little bit more human, and to ultimately help transformation and change or simply to increase efficiency. Humanoid appearance helps for people to interact.

Pepper is the first robot that reads emotions. It was designed to be a genuine companion. To date, more than 140 SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan use Pepper as a new way of welcoming, informing and amusing their customers. Pepper also recently became the first humanoid robot to be adopted in Japanese homes!

Since the start of sales in June 2015, Pepper has sold out in Japan for seven consecutive months. 7,000 units have been sold. SoftBank Robotics have also just announced that they will open the “RobotApp Market for Biz” on 22nd February 2016.  This is an app store for “Pepper for Biz”, the enterprise model of the humanoid robot Pepper. In this way purchasers of Pepper for Biz will be able to choose and install robot apps that suit their companies’ usage needs. 

The Hamburg Aviation Conference ibot from Double Robotics allows remote-controlled movements and presence through videoconferencing. It is best described as an iPad on a Segway. It uses squat wheels at the bottom and a telescoping pole that extends from three feet to five feet tall. At the top of this, an iPad can be installed. The whole arrangement is self-balancing. You log in via gotomeeting, FaceTime or any other virtual call via mobile app or website. And you are presented with controls to move the bot around. A loudspeaker attachments allow you to have proper audio in place, as if you were present.

It was amazing to see how Tanaka san, Nikken Sekkei, designer of Tokyo Narita Terminal 3 in the New Generation Panel at the Hamburg Aviation Conference 2016, after a little time of orientation, turned around to watch the speaker as a human would do, just a little bit more slowly.

There will be more to come - the Chinese have developed an artificially intelligent chameleon robot that changes colour to blend into its background. Domestic furniture may soon have a mind of their own, with furniture that collaborate such as a robot footstool that you can call after a long day, self-tidying robotic clothes and toy boxes. 

We do not need to fear technology - but we need to fear our own ability to deal with the problem. We have not yet adapted to the digital and automated society but the impact is drastic. As Mairead Brady, Trinity College, The University of Dublin, asked at the Hamburg Aviation Conference 2016: Are we ready for this new digital world? 

The secret is to give robots and technology personality and human traits, and use them for the right things, leaving human intervention for the value added unusual tasks.

Ursula Silling
CEO & Founder of XXL Solutions, a boutique consultancy focussing on customer, technology, innovation and achieving change with the people from their customers' organisation
Organiser of the global think tank Hamburg Aviation Conference "think future"