Regular readers of this site know I’m a bit of a robot fan and will take any opportunity to publish a still from Futurama. So it interested me to see the ultimate in robot bling in Guangzhou, China, where an unnamed “tycoon” went on a shopping trip accompanied by a coterie of robotic servants.
Having been at the Millennials 20/20 conference in London last week and getting an up-close look at super-cute robot, Pepper, it hit me just how far robotics have come.
The robots in China carried our unnamed shopper’s carrier bags, his coat, his water bottle (but probably not his wallet) as he strolled in and out of jewellery stores and other luxury shops.
Yes, it looked incredibly tacky and the reaction on Chinese social media was pretty negative. Plus there’s the sexist element – note that these robots for some reason seem to have a gender (female of course, many reports referred to them as “robot maids”).
But beyond all that, it does say something about the future of retail – and that future will be (at least partially) robotic.
Forward-Looking retailers like Amazon have already invested in robotics and the e-tail giant has around 30,000 non-cute functional robots performing tasks (like lifting and shifting goods) in its warehouses alongside human employees.
Amazon’s robot look like machines and we aren’t meant to relate to them in any other way. Hitachi though is developing a humanoid robot that can work in-store, can approach customers who look like they need help and give them limited guidance. I assume that means phrases like “we close at 8pm” rather than “that dress looks great on you but would be better in blue and how about this delightful necklace to go with it” (that really would be scary).
The Hitachi robot is called EMIEW3 (by the way, EMIEW launched way back in 2005). It has a remote brain connected to cloud-based intelligent processing systems. It can communicate with other robots and can stand up again if it’s knocked over.
While there are fears that mass adoption of robots will take jobs from people, the view from the inside at the moment is that people and robots are complementary and real humans are needed to do the more sophisticated thinking and perform the more detailed tasks that robots can’t.
Of course, as robot tech improves, that’s when the ethical issues will come in. How tempting will it be for a company to ‘employ’ more advanced and capable robots rather than those pesky humans? And as robots become more human-like, when will our use of them to do absolutely anything we tell them to do border on slavery?
They may seem extreme question to ask today, but they’re questions we’ll have to answer in the lifetime of most people reading this piece, take my word for it. Oh, and here’s that Futurama still… Don’t you just love Bender?