Blog. Some robots are more equal than others



Not all robots are the same. There are relatively dumb robots that do the same thing all day long, such as assembling cars in a factory, vacuuming your house or mowing your grass. And there are robots that have human characteristics, such as communication skills and intelligence.

What makes these “humanoids” or human robots special is not that they can talk and walk, but rather that they can communicate, think and learn like humans do. You can have a proper conversation with these robots. This offers an unprecedented opportunity to make all kinds of services more efficient and improve their quality. Applications range from customer services for large corporations, to support for medical staff in healthcare.

Exponential rate of improvement

A number of technological developments are converging which are helping to improve robots extremely rapidly (i.e. exponentially). First, the accuracy and responsiveness of robots have improved enormously. This means that robots are not only able to work on an assembly line in a factory, but are also able to perform surgical procedures on humans. The hand of a robot vibrates less than the hand of a surgeon.

Where we previously used robots to perform duties that are boring, dangerous or dirty, robots are now able to carry out work that requires precision and patience.

Sensor technology

The self-driving car is also a robot. Thanks to the development of sensor technology, cars (and drones) can find their own way without bumping into everything and everyone.

Programming a car to find and reach its destination, is in itself, a great achievement. What’s really clever however, is that self-driving cars share the road with cars that are controlled by humans who do not always react rationally.

In order to anticipate any type of environment in a timely manner, the car needs sensors that can detect any relevant change in circumstances quickly, decide on the appropriate action (brake, accelerate, change lane), and perform these actions with great precision.

The ‘Go’ world champion is a robot

Contrary to the expectations of many experts, the self-learning robot, AlphaGo from Google Deep Mind, defeated the World Champion Go, the South-Korean Lee Sedol, 4-1 in March 2016. Go is a strategy game played on a board of 19 by 19 lines and is considered to be the most difficult board game in the world. There are more than 10,000 possible positions on the board; 10 times more than chess. A game between two professional players typically takes 250 moves.

AlphaGo illustrates the possibilities of artificial intelligence. AlphaGo has learned by not only mastering millions of moves made by professional players in the past, but also through playing many games against itself, and discovering new strategies in the process. Everything that the robot has learned is used to forecast the path the game will take and to analyse the consequences of alternative moves. In other words, AlphaGo is able to recognize complex patterns, make long-term plans, and take decisions. Until recently we thought that these skills were exclusive to human beings.

The virtual assistant

Communicating with robots is getting easier and more natural because the cognitive capabilities of robots have significantly improved. Robots have made great progress in understanding the human voice, comprehending what is meant and responding without delay using a human voice. Many people are familiar with Siri, the virtual assistant on Apple’s iPhone and iPad, which is surprisingly accurate, even in Dutch. The virtual assistant from Google is called Google Now and Facebook is working on ‘M’.

Thanks to these qualities, robots can be deployed in customer services, both over the phone and physically. In a number of shops a robot helps people to select and find the right product. For example, at the Dutch electronics store, Mediamarkt you may encounter Trusty, who is driving around with a large screen.

Schiphol Airport is working on a robot called Spencer that takes passengers to their gate, with the aim of avoiding delays. And Hilton is introducing a concierge robot at several hotels in the United States. The robot can answer questions about local tourist attractions, facilities at the hotel and nearby restaurants.

For better or worse?

The suggestion is that the robots allow human employees to spend more time on really complex questions and personalized requests. Time will tell if customers are more, or less satisfied with service offered by a robot compared to human employees.

Robots deployed in telephone customer services have no physical appearance. Instinctively, most people currently still say that they prefer to get a human being on the phone rather than a robot, but there are situations where you can question that. For example, in the Netherlands there are so many complaints about the lack of accuracy in the answers people receive when calling the tax office, that you could question whether we would be better off with robots doing that job.

Impact of robotics on corporate strategy

What will the development in robotics lead to? Some fear that robots will rule the world and enslave humans. I don’t think it will come to that. However, robotics will have a significant impact on our society and the economy and will, for example, lead to major changes in the labor market.

Truck drivers, telemarketers and customer service agents can be largely replaced by robots. And many highly-educated professionals are also vulnerable, as cognitive computers are now becoming so good that they can automate the work of doctors and lawyers.

Furthermore, robotics will create new products, new markets, new ways of working, new jobs. What opportunities are there for robots in your company or industry? Can you use them to cut costs or do new things?

As the developments in robotics are exponential, answering these strategic questions is extremely  urgent. For a thorough analysis the external appearance of robots should be ignored. Robots can be hardware, but also just software. Focus on the underlying technology and ask yourself: how are you going to enhance the customer experience and gain a competitive advantage with sensors, autonomously operating robots and artificial intelligence?

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