Fictitious robots of the 20th century had super powers and were depicted in fantastical morality tales, in battles of right and wrong. Their 21st-century real-world counterparts have a more prosaic but ultimately more ground-breaking power: They’re enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) to solve everyday challenges for people, businesses and society. The potential opportunities created from integrating intelligence into industrial and service robots are leading businesses to take notice.
Recently, a leading global telecommunications company asked us to develop a strategy for activating services that would enable service robots to productively interact in both the business-to-business and business-to-consumer realms.
Why Service Robots?
Service robots pose unique needs, as they are functionally designed to perform a task for or with humans. They can sense what is happening in their environment, process information and act accordingly. They can learn from and respond to human behavior. They can read and interpret movements and facial expressions. They can recognize different voices, even different vocal tones.
And with these capabilities, they are capable of social agency – the ability to act and make independent decisions within a sociakil context while interacting with human beings, whether at home or in the workplace.
This evolution to robots as social actors opens new potential business models for organizations across industries.
Starting with the Basics
Service robots, in both a personal and professional instance, have focused on achieving discrete tasks. For example, Domino’s Pizza and partner Starship Technologies have developed self-driving carts to deliver pizza in Hamburg, Germany. In Japan, Robear service robots use advanced technology to power intelligent vision, flexible movement and arms strong enough to lift a human. In healthcare settings, these giant teddy bear-like robots perform tasks such as helping elderly patients stand up or move from a bed into a wheelchair.
Over time, we are seeing service robots evolve from discrete functions to multi-purpose actors. For instance, the Segway Advanced Personal Robot can give rides, carry groceries, answer the doorbell or complete a myriad of other personal tasks. The Asus Zenbo is billed as a smart home manager, security guard, hands-free kitchen assistant and family photographer.
Emergence of Social Intelligence
But varying forms of AI are set to allow further advances: Socially intelligent service robots can create new connections and enhance the human experience. Their services can orchestrate how a home or workplace operates on our behalf and even provide human care.
These robots trade mobility for greater social intelligence and interactive behavior. Rather than running a home or helping with specific tasks, they concentrate on the nuances of interacting with humans, and making that experience feel comfortable and fun.
While not all service robots will engage in such behavior, all should be designed and built with the goal of improving the lives of people.
Four Requirements for Service Robot Success
How can service robots improve the lives of people? To better understand the evolving field of service robots, we conducted a global study, in which we discovered that for humans to trust, engage with and integrate service robots into their everyday lives, four paramount needs must be addressed:
- Usability: Service robots often lack social graces. Designing robots that are not only technically capable but also interact more naturally with humans requires collaboration between engineers and behavioral scientists.
- Development: Building robots is complex, costly and labor-intensive. The currently fragmented development process needs to move away from decades-old custom engineering to more modular approaches.
- Physical safety: As service robots become more intertwined with everyday life, they need to abide by physical standards for functioning in close proximity to people.
- Personal privacy: Social robots offer far greater value when they can sense and respond to a human’s actions, words, tone of voice or emotional state and store this information for later recall. Transparent management of such personal data will resolve the tension between violating privacy and delivering personalized experiences.
Business Potential – and Challenges
In the wake of our research, we believe that purpose-built service robots will create entirely new revenue streams and market growth. We believe they’ll create value in many different uses in our lives and in commerce – from medicine and public relations to agriculture, defense and logistics. From adaptive, automated service robots with defined tasks and a limited function, to socially intelligent robots, these machines will become the new actors in human society, woven into the fabric of our daily lives.
Such devices will need to run on network infrastructures and cloud services that enable them to build stronger connections as they serve humans. And while the service robotics hardware industry is projected to reach $21.7 billion in sales by 2022, the market potential is only accelerating.
For businesses to embrace this new opportunity, they need to tackle numerous challenges, including:
- Envisioning how the introduction of intelligent social actors could change and improve business processes.
- Which technical architecture will best enable adoption of these highly promising devices?
- What is the new interaction model with this new suite of robot workers?
To answer these questions fully, we believe organizations must use the social sciences. We believe in the value of human-centered design to unlock new business opportunities and enhance human experience. We plan to address this topic in future posts, looking at the shifting business paradigm created from adopting and applying AI.