Artificial intelligence is far from new. In 1956, some researchers at a conference in Devon, UK, announced that a robot as intelligent as a human was imminent. Since then there have been pitfalls and stumbling blocks, but with the emotionally expressive humanoid Pepper emerging as the face of Nespresso in Japan, it seems there’s little robots can’t do.
Robots have been trumping humans in warehouses for over a decade. Smaller, faster and more affordable than before, bots can quickly span warehouses the size of six football fields. Locus robots used by Quiet Logistics, an e-commerce fulfilment provider for the likes of Zara, expect to increase productivity by 800%, because they are fast and don’t need breaks or lunch.
Robots are increasingly used in interaction with customers. Pepper will also be asking: “May I take your order?” at Pizza Hut restaurants in parts of Asia. In the US, hotel brand Hilton is trialing Connie (named in honor of Conrad Hilton), the hospitality industry’s first Watson-enabled robot concierge.
The International Federation of Robotics recently forecast that, in 2018, 1.3m new robots will enter the global workforce. Yet even advanced humanoid robots still have their limitations. “They may not be able to talk to consumers in detail about their orders”, says Ross Knepper, an assistant professor at Cornell University who has studied human and robot interaction. “That may be frustrating for consumers.”
“Companies need to be prepared,” says Robert Bolton, Partner at KPMG’s Global HR Centre of Excellence. “Robots may seem like a marketing gimmick but the return on investment could be significant. With these technologies, there’s a slow burn, and an acceleration that is likely to surprise us. The day when they’ll be working alongside people is not far off.”