Imagine going to the mall on a Saturday afternoon. Stepping into your favorite department store, you’re welcomed by a sales clerk you don’t recognize. She doesn’t look familiar, and upon closer inspection, she doesn’t look entirely human. If this scenario seems too “out of this world”, think again. Robotic customer service attendants aren’t a piece of science fiction anymore.
Meet Aiko Chihira.
Aiko Chihira is a 32-year-old brunette and stands at about 5’5”. Chihira’s work history is dotted with customer service experience; she was previously a greeter at the Mistukoshi department store, and is fluent in both Japanese and Japanese sign language. She’s a little softspoken, though. By the way—Aiko Chihira is a robot.
You’re probably familiar with Toshiba laptops, but did you know Aiko Chihira is the result of a collaboration between Toshiba and Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory? While she isn’t perfectly human, she gets pretty darn close. Chihira can’t carry a deep conversation, nor can she answer specific questions, but she does come preprogrammed with pieces of dialogue delivered through moving lips. Her fine-tuned movements are nearly lifelike; while Chihira was on display at Mitsukoshi, people flocked to the store just to marvel at the pretty android. She blinked, she bowed, and she knew enough about the department store to provide information about events. Chihira’s so popular, Toshiba is considering expanding her family.
Are androids the future of customer service?
Toshiba’s ultimate goal is to create a truly humanlike robot that is capable of anything a human can do. Maybe Chihira becomes trilingual, learns Chinese, and is able to give fleshed-out answers to customers. Eventually, she could be able to discuss anything from store promotions to directions to the restroom.
What does this mean for the future of retail? The widespread availability of android sales attendants isn’t on the immediate horizon, but there are other robots like Aiko Chihira. Yangyang was created by Shanghai Shenqing Industry and Osaka University with the intention of educating people about robotics. Believe it or not, she’s able to do more than Chihira. In addition to speaking, blinking, and smiling, Yangyang can give you a handshake and a hug.
These humanoid robots will cost a pretty penny. However, the long-term savings could outweigh the initial investment. After all, you don’t have to pay a robot a monthly salary. Aside from the costs of maintenance and updates, a robotic sales associate doesn’t need healthcare or benefits. Right now, robots like Aiko and Yangyang make good greeters, but these specialized positions are just out of reach. Nonetheless, you can’t doubt it. The uber-advanced future is coming faster than we could’ve imagined.