industrial robot packing materials
PHOTO: Franck V.

Robots are still too impersonal, unsympathetic and clumsy for use when human interaction is required, particularly in the case of customers. While this may change, for now, physical robots are best suited in B2B environments.

There are many commercial robots available today, the Roomba being a good example. Examples like that, however, don’t require human interaction when in use. Today’s commercial robots are mostly machines that cover tedious household chores — something that robots do very well.

Robots Are Accurate, But Sometimes Empathy Is More Important

Early experiments with introducing robots in customer interactions have not gone well. A horrifying example, reported by CNN, occurred in a hospital where a robot equipped with a video screen entered the room of an ailing grandfather. Via video, the doctor delivered a grim prognosis while the man’s family stood nearby. The hospital stated the intention is for a nurse to always accompany the robot, but in this case, it didn’t happen. Clearly some procedures need to be worked out before the technology can be used.

You can argue that robots are more accurate than humans and I would agree. But because robots are not yet programmed to empathize or make moral judgement calls, accuracy is not always the best course of action. In fact, robots are often programmed to make decisions based on cost or predefined morals. Most of us would feel uncomfortable sacrificing a human life even if it meant that five others would be saved, whereas a robot would see it as the only logical choice. In other words, we don’t trust robots to make the right decisions when it involves human interaction.

In the business world, robots can thrive. It is a better environment for the robotic industry to look to when introducing and testing human interactions. As robots become mainstream in the business world — whether it be in manufacturing, warehousing and transportation/delivery — incremental learning can help to program robots to be more human-like through analysis of terabytes of human decision-making scenarios. Yes, we are talking artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning here.

Introducing robots that require human interaction to consumers today is counterproductive. The well-publicized robot mishaps build mistrust and gives the technology a black eye. Also, humanoid robots are just too creepy to have around the house. (It doesn’t help that Hollywood turns out movies and TV shows whose themes revolve around robots going amok with dire consequences.)

Related Article: Did You Know Your New Colleague Is a Robot? 

Focus on Business Related Robotics ... for Now

Until robots are ready for prime time, efforts are better spent on business-related robotics and the AI needed to effectively train them. The business world has an appetite for robotics and their use can fund further development to introduce human qualities and decision-making.

We have all heard of voice assisted devices like Amazon Alexa or Google Home, passive devices that respond to human requests for information. Perhaps, not so passive if they are constantly monitoring and listening. One such device, called Olly, is going a step further by analyzing humans' voice patterns and inflections as well as facial expressions. The idea here is it may detect you in a restful pose and suggest soothing music to help you unwind from a stressful day. (Again, a bit creepy.)

But when these more human-like robots are interacting with humans at work, it is somehow less creepy, even helpful, and the results are typically not personal. In fact, getting to know robots through work activities can be less stressful and provides a context on how robots can be useful instead of intrusive.

Workers in manufacturing and logistics — warehousing and transportation — have most likely been exposed to physical robots who use indoor location systems to assist with parts delivery and locating items. And since robots are great at doing repetitive actions, they are very useful in providing quality assurance testing. In these scenarios, robots are working alongside humans but not interacting with them. Can these robots, already in place, be the testing ground for human interactions? Can the data they collect and the human actions they observe be used to learn about human behavior and decision-making?

Or should we just draw the line and say that robots should be passive assistants only? We’ve all experienced some sense of unease when we go online to research a product and then an ad for that product appears on another website that we visit. Called "retargeting" in marketing parlance, for some it is more than just unease, it feels like stalking. Would robots who learn our behavior and react to it also give us the same sense of unease or fear in our own homes?

As with most things, if we saw a clear value, we may overcome any uneasiness. Today, the benefit is a bit murky because of the lack of empathy and the fear/creepiness factor. Tomorrow, who knows? After all, a robot might have tapped out this article based on my online views, my search history and my writing style.

Related Article: How Amazon's Robot Army Is Driving Customer Experience