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When I was aged 9, I received a toy robot for Christmas. About a foot tall, its moulded black plastic body walked a few steps, opened the doors on its chest, and fired its 1980 style lasers during a 360-degree spin.   While flashing its red angry eyes as the space-age laser soundtrack echoed around the room, it then closed up, walked a few more steps before repeating its laser-spin. It was my favourite toy for a long time, part of many creative adventures and destroyer of my sisters’ tea parties. It didn’t really do much on its own, but add the imagination of a 9-year old, and it could do and be anything.

As we gear up for the AI step-change, let us be clear that it is only in the creative application of this new technology that it will add value to consumers. Only when the interaction is seamless, efficient and personal will we inherently trust the system.

So, I thought it might be interesting to look at some areas where AI needs to do better in order to earn the consumer respect it will need to trigger mass market acceptance. In this two-part blog, we first look at Robotics & Automation. Here are 3 questions worth asking:

One: Does It Add Any Real Value?

We know that robotics will be a key part of our future, already well established in functions such as manufacturing and warehousing. Watching the Ocado ‘picking’ robots in their warehouse, or in fact any robotic system on an assembly line, and you cannot walk away without being impressed at the sheer speed, efficiency and precision of robots. In these tasks, they add significant value by doing the task of a human faster and more precisely.  The costs savings are significant as are the productivity numbers. For the logistics nerds amongst us, watch some of this 3-minute video of how this amazing system works.


Then there are robots and systems that replace a human but, in the end, don’t really add any value to a consumer. Think of the self-check-out in your local supermarket. If you have, say 10 items, you would be much faster with a checkout operator, a human. “Unexpected item in the baggage area”. Yes, its my foot kicking your robotic ass as you tell me the bananas I am trying to weigh are ‘not recognised’. The McDonalds’ self-order kiosks the same. Sometimes slower to navigate than the human interaction.

Are McDonald’s Employees Robots?

The point here is that where a robot does something better than a human, we add value to the customer experience. In a weird way, I would feel safer being driven in an autonomous vehicle that I would by some of the humans I know! The ideal replacement for human interaction is where little value is being added by the human. Again, think of those assembly line robots placing lids on bottles or ‘picking’ robots in a warehouse. These are ‘if/then’ repetitive tasks, and ideally suited for automation and robotics. In the supermarket, I suppose one could argue that a till operator passing products over a sensor and onto a conveyor belt isn’t really adding value, and so the self-checkout is a good replacement. As are those self-order machines at McDonald’s. Rarely did the till operator at McDonalds engage me beyond “Would you like to go large?” (Am I the only one in the world that always thinks the obvious reply to this is “well I will do if I keep eating the food here!”)

Then there are the robots that do add value to a consumer.  Take the domestic vacuum or lawnmower robots, always on the go, always working, trundling around saving us from having to undertake such menial tasks ourselves. Those we like. Or the automatic passport control machines when the queue for the kiosk is too long (if there is no queue, we still all know the human process is faster!). Or what about the hotel butler robot that delivers your room service.


Having a butler robot deliver room service in a hotel is a perfect use of robotics. Little value is added by a human in that scenario, I need my Caesar Salad to make its way from the kitchen to my room so I can stay in my fluffy dressing gown while I build a small fort (hey … what I do in my hotel room is my own business!). Of course, such hotel butlers are not yet human proof, as the Residence Inn robot ‘Wally’ learned. After delivering fresh towels, the resident promptly dumped their used wet towels back into Wally, instantly short-circuiting him.

Any interaction that adds little value is up for automation. Even the front desk of a mid-level hotel. The hospitality industry gush about the personal touch, but the honest truth is most front desk check-in interactions in a mid-level hotel are as friendly and enjoyable as a bikini waxing. A quick passport or ID scan, entering my booking number and a terminal can simply spit out a room key and a wi-fi code. 90% of the time that is all I need. I don’t need to wait for 10 minutes in a lobby to just be given a plastic card.

Does Automation Always Equal Value?

The mistake being made in some environments is replacing humans with robots where robots are simply not the same. A store greeter hologram or the mobile customer service robots are cute, but unlikely to be the future. In my opinion they are a novelty at best, a mobile information kiosk at worst. Yes, the technology is impressive but does it add value to the consumer over traditional models?

Have a look at Pepper below, the humanoid customer service robot. It is cute and I’ve met Pepper at various shows, but I still think it is just a content-based website on wheels every time I interact with it.


Similarly, all the work being done by Domino’s at present, from drone, robot or autonomous vehicle delivery, is explorative. Yes, the future will definitely have robotics as a strong part of the delivery solution but we are not there yet. A pimply 17-year old on a scooter will still get my pizza to me faster.

The big question that we need to pose is are consumers themselves ready for the robots? I think the answer is yes. From paying at the pump, to self-checkout in supermarkets and self-check in at hotels, retail banking in-store machines replacing tellers, passport machines over police, consumers are getting used to machine over man. For most it is simply corporations removing costs from service delivery, and to the consumer it feels like that.

Will 2019 be the year when robotics becomes the norm? No. Drone invasions are causing havoc at international airports and tens of thousands of children received robot pets this Christmas, a lot smarter than my 1980’s robot. Yes, we will see more automation and things like Amazon Go will cease to sound so amazing. The interesting thing about consumers is that we adapt fast.


My daughter asked Alexa how long was left on a timer she had set for the pizza she was cooking the other day. After getting the reply, her reflex was to say ‘Thank You’ to the Echo. Alexa wasn’t bothered. Alexa is part of my daughters 11-year old life, automation is expected and swiping or clicking is the norm. She treats Alexa like part of the family.

While AI prepares to change the world as we know it, Gen Z will catalyse the step-change. But just like that robot I owned, AI is only as impactful as the human imaginations behind it in how it is to be applied. Replace humans for cost saving initiatives and it can be frustrating, but add value beyond what was already there and robotics wins every time.

As I write this and look out my window, my 3-legged dog is chasing the robot lawnmower again. There’ll only be one winner there.

Ken Hughes launches his new keynote ‘The AI Consumer: Marketing to the Machine’ in 2019, looking at the likely impact AI will have on society, consumerism and what brands and businesses need to do in preparation for a Business-to-Machine (B2M) world. Click here to get details on this new keynote

Ken Hughes is now widely recognized as one of the world’s leading Consumer and Shopper Behaviouralists, blending his significant expertise in new consumer values, cyber psychology, digital realities and societal change to help brands and businesses navigate the latest consumerist challenges and to survive & thrive. Click here to read more


A blog to  inspire and delight

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A blog to  inspire and delight