All the forecasts for the developed world show a decline in the “working age population”. There will be less workers. In other Newsletters I have argued that this should shift the balance of negotiating power back to the “blue collar worker”. For an employer, workers are going to be more difficult to hire and more expensive.
Japan hit this problem first and has placed a lot of emphasis on “robots”. For those of who have never seen Star Wars let me explain the title of this Newsletter. C-3PO is a character. He is a golden humanoid robot. His role is to translate the requirements of humans into instructions for all kinds of different robots. R2-D2 is also a character. He is a “dustbin” shaped robot on wheels. He is an engineer and has tools to fix everything. The question is whether robots can help with the worker shortage and if so what form they will take?
Takafumi Yano argues that technological wizardry has distracted from a closer look at the role these workers actually perform. He argues that far too much worker time is taken in quality checking. He estimates that 500,000 Japanese workers are engaged full time in it. He has founded a company to try to replace them. He argues that AI is not ready for such a role alone. Instead he proposes to harness the eyes of humans outside Japan.
His company Rutilea combines AI with the mobile phones of GIG workers. 3D cameras are positioned in Japanese factories and on production lines. The workers, in places like Indonesia, log in to the system with their mobile phones. They work as remote quality checkers. As Leo Lewis of the Financial Times points out outsourcing quality may be a step too far for the Japanese. The quality of Japanese products has been their defining feature. It is part of the cultural heritage of Japan. “If adopted Rutilea will break the mould”.
In developed economies most workers do not even work in manufacturing. They are in the service sector. There are already “robots” that work in the “back of house”. They can be cook and clean. The US “Flippy” robot can already cook burgers as well as any human. They might even be able to take over the customer service roles. They can certainly free humans for that job. Some even speculate a role in care for the elderly.
Customer Service Robots
I was recently at the La Londe Services conference in France and the SERVSIG conference in Glasgow. These are academic services conferences. One of the major themes was the automation of the front line employee role. Researchers have, for example, found that consumers prefer robots in some roles. It turns out that if the setting is embarrassing, a robot is preferred to a human. Booking a doctor’s appointment for an embarrassing disease is easier if it not with a human receptionist. It turns out that making the robot humanoid, like C-3PO, does not change the effect. We know it is still a robot and that it will not make judgements about us. It is those judgements that make us feel embarrassed.
The Vstone HIRO-San “robot” is infant sized. Doll like, it never the less possesses the ability to respond to humans. One of the conferences included a study of dementia patients in Italy. Many were non-responsive, passive and hardly moved. Some were given a HIRO. HIRO is a very simple robot as robots go. If left alone in becomes miserable. If picked up it progressively gets happier. It can sense movement of all kinds. It indicates all this with the sounds it makes that can vary from laughing to crying. The sounds are taken from real babies.
The researchers expected a “wow” effect with a flash of interest that faded quickly. In fact many patients, especially women, played for four hours with HIRO. The next day they asked for the robot again. The robot managed to get them to get up and move about. Some patients even started to socialized with their neighbours. They took their HIROs to meet each other.
The surprising thing about HIRO-SAN is its completely blank face. From a design point of view it saves on the attenuators that would needed to make the “baby” happy or sad. It might also avoid what has been called the “uncanny valley”. This argues that as robots are made more humanoid we appreciate them more. This continues to the point were the resemblance is close. Then we find the robot “creepy” and disturbing. Because it is nearly human but not “quite right”, it sets off a negative set of emotions- they are seen as “uncanny”. Perhaps this is the reason that detective Spooner in I-Robot finds the robot Sonny so upsetting.
Stuart Russell, is one of the foremost thinkers on robots and A.I. He argues that 70% of us will interact with AI on any given day. Yet only 30% of us will notice. AI is being used to “upgrade” all kinds of front line services. There are around 4BN devices already working with AI-powered voice assistants. Speech recognition programmes in Alexa and SIRI run on AI. Chat-bots increasingly have added intelligence through AI. The simple ATM is being upgrade to increase its functionality. Because these “terminals” have AI are they becoming robots? Does it matter?
Automation in services is exploding. Over many years we have already automated the whole customer journey of travel. Paper tickets and travel agents have gone. We carry our boarding passes on our smartphones and check in by self- scanning. We tag our own bags and add them to the conveyor. Most passports now carry machine readable photo ID. It should not be long before our identity is checked by remote facial recognition cameras in the jet way. No human will “touch” us from entering the airport to sitting in the plane. All without robots, but with help from increasingly intelligent terminals. We can shop in an Amazon store without a check-out or paying at a till. There is no need to create robot cashiers or to improve self- scanning machines any further.
Do we need C-3PO or R2-D2? Will a terminal upgraded with AI do? We are about to find out. Labour shortages are here to stay and service firms will have to adapt.