Michael R. Solomon, Professor of Marketing, Saint Joseph’s University
A headline from a New York Times article says it all: “Robots Welcome to Take Over, as Pandemic Accelerates Automation: Broad unease about losing jobs to machines could dissipate as people focus on the benefits of minimizing close human contact.”
It’s no secret that we have come to rely upon computers for a huge array of tasks. Still, most of us regard our machines as an “other” entity made of metal and silicon that await our commands. But the line that separates Humans vs. Computers is blurring rapidly.
As AI technology advances, many of us now are thinking a lot more about a fundamental question that SciFi writers have grappled with for many years: what makes us human and what separates a person from a machine?
Today, the question of what makes us human no longer is something fun to discuss over a few beers. Self-driving cars threaten to replace truck drivers. IBM’s Watson beats chess masters and veteran Jeopardy game show contestants. Movies and TV shows like Blade Runner, Westworld, and Humans that focus on the civil rights of synths, replicants, and androids are center-stage in popular culture.
We’re just at the beginning of discovering what life will be like in an automated society, but already the rapidly disappearing boundary between Humans vs. Computers is disrupting many aspects of our daily lives. For example, the AARP points out that in the U.S. alone we can expect a short of nearly 450,000 caregivers for the elderly by 2025. To address this gap, many companies already build “socially assistive” robots that interact with the elderly to keep them company or monitor their health.
What AI means for the Sales Floor
The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2030, as many as 800 million global workers will lose their jobs to robotic automation.
Many organizations now deploy robots, avatars and chatbots to perform more prosaic tasks we used to ask flesh-and-blood people to do. Sure, robots can work hard (and they don’t catch viruses, at least the kind we do), so already they are starting to replace human workers who do routine tasks such as warehouse fulfillment.
But the AI revolution goes well beyond logistics and reaches deep into the front-of-the-store as well. In Japan, SoftBank started to sell the first full-scale humanoid home assistant to consumers. Pepper is intended to provide companionship and information to users. It (or he?) is equipped with “emotion engine” software that can read a person’s emotions via facial expressions and speech and react accordingly.
But wait, isn’t the ability to “read” people the hallmark of a good salesperson? It’s just a matter of time before new-and-improved versions of Pepper start to populate the sales floor.
Are marketers ready for robot salespeople?
Ready or not, they need to grapple with this question, and soon. Worldwide sales of consumer robots passed 5 billion dollars in 2018, and robot shipments will increase from 15 million units in 2018 to 66 million by 2025. The market value by then would be 19 billion dollars.
At the retail level, how will shoppers react to dealing with a non-human in a store environment? So far, consumers seem eager to embrace android salespeople. One recent survey reported that about half of the women it sampled want to use them when they shop for beauty products. This initial enthusiasm may stem from the speed and convenience of an automated process, the perceived ineptitude of many store employees to provide constructive (and especially objective) advice, or perhaps a combination of both.
Of course, it’s still early days, and quite possible that a lot of this receptiveness is simply due to the novelty of talking to a metal “person.” Once that wears off (and it will), we need to learn a lot more about the factors that will attract or dissuade customers from seeking a machine’s advice. Clearly, they will have to learn to trust the suggestions they receive, for example. And certainly, there are consumer variables such as gender, social class/ education, and experience with a product category that will make some of us more likely than others to embrace this new form of decision making.
As the line between Humans vs. Computers disappears, we need to address many important ethical and strategic questions, such as these:
• How does the physical appearance of a robot or avatar sales advisor affect the likelihood that customers will trust and follow its recommendations about what to buy?
• How will chatbots and affective computing (where software detects a consumer’s emotional state) impact sales interactions?
•What will be the impact of dating apps, sexbots, and other smart devices on interpersonal relationships?
•How will facial recognition and wearable computer technologies meld with AI to create “markets of one” where the messages we see, and the products and services we buy, are highly customized to each individual consumer?
Very soon, the rise of the machines will become the race of the machines. Be sure you’re at the starting gate.