The Ai clerk

A day may be coming soon when that friendly “Irashaimase!” (“Welcome!”) you hear in Japan at the convenience store or the bank will come from the mouth of a mechanical clerk rather than a human one. Humanoid robots are catching on, and they are expected to help retail businesses improve customer service.

Backers say robots attract customers and increase sales with their ability to handle detailed tasks and multiple languages. They can also be used in combination with cloud computing to compile data on customers. They may also help alleviate labor shortages and cut personnel costs.

Matter of interpretation

Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ plans to assign robots to its branches as receptionists. In April, the bank had a trial run at its head office in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward with Nao, a humanoid robot. Nao was developed by French robot maker Aldebaran Robotics, a unit of Japanese telecom company SoftBank.

“We were asked by the government to use robots to deal with tourists from abroad, and we have made it our task to do so,” said Takuma Nomoto, a chief manager with the bank’s e-business and IT initiatives division. At the moment, Nao speaks three languages: Japanese, English and Chinese, but the plan is to program it with 19.

The bank worked with Aldebaran to create a basic customer service app. “The development of the app was rather easy and took only a week. The robots cost less than 1 million yen ($8,058) each,” said Tadashi Betto, a senior manager with the division. But the bank has had trouble refining it. Nao can answer frequently asked questions, but it tends to be long-winded because it is simply reciting written answers. “We had to cut the sentences to natural lengths and make the expressions into conversational language,” Betto said.

The bank plans to use the robot at just one or two branches for now, but will roll them out nationwide if the tests go well.

Human-robot relations

Pepper, another Aldebaran machine, is helping Nestle Japan sell its coffee makers at large electronics stores. The unit of the Swiss food company plans to have around 1,000 robotic sales assistants by the end of this year. When a customer speaks to it, Pepper recognizes the customer’s face and responds. The customer answers questions on a tablet, which Pepper uses to suggest products.

“As people’s interest in robots and their expectations for them grow, we wanted to provide … a new way of purchasing,” said Kensuke Otani, who heads Nestle Japan’s coffee system business. “The robot is popular with customers, irrespective of age or sex, and has attracted 50% more customers at some stores,” he said.

Mizuho Bank will introduce Pepper at some of its branches in July, and eventually will put it in branches around Japan. The idea is to drum up new business. Pepper will be enlisted to pitch financial products to customers while they wait to speak to an actual person. “For instance, Pepper will tell customers a funny story about someone who caused great trouble because he didn’t have life insurance,” said Tadahiro Ihara, a member of Mizuho Bank’s personal banking division.

Shintarou Kaneko, a senior manager with the division, said Pepper will help the bank improve its service by doing things humans cannot. “A robot does not need the several months of training humans usually need to learn about products, and can quickly communicate in multiple languages,” he said.

Mizuho Bank in February began using IBM’s Watson at its call center. Watson, which became famous for beating human players on a popular U.S. quiz show, uses artificial intelligence to answer questions. The bank is considering having Pepper and Watson team up. “This will have a great impact,” Kaneko said. Customers might feel strange having a conversation with a smartphone or a tablet, but a humanoid robot would let them talk to Watson directly.

Just like me

Robots that resemble women and mimic their gestures are appearing at department stores and hotels. Mitsukoshi’s main department store in Tokyo’s Nihombashi district used Chihira Aico, a humanoid robot made by Toshiba, at the reception counter on the ground floor of the store in April to attract customers for the Golden Week holidays.

Toshiba developed Chihira Aico in cooperation with robot-making startup A-Lab, Osaka University, the Shibaura Institute of Technology and the Shonan Institute of Technology. The robot’s lifelike face and body is the brainchild of a group led by Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at the Osaka University Graduate School of Engineering Science. Ishiguro is famous for his research on androids — robots with a human appearance.

At the moment, Chihira Aico can only say and do precisely what she is instructed to do by her program; she cannot answer questions or talk with people. By 2020, Toshiba aims to have the robot serve as a conversation partner for the elderly and a sign-language robot by combining the software with the company’s sensor technology and speech synthesis and recognition.

Cheap help

Theme park operator Huis Ten Bosch plans to open a “smart” hotel, Henn na Hotel, in July on an experimental basis. The hotel will use the latest information technology to cut labor and energy costs. It will have three Actroid humanoid robots, developed by Kokoro, stationed near the reception desk to serve guests. Actroid greets people as they approach and can answer simple questions.

The hotel will introduce a system that identifies guests using a facial recognition system so that they will be able to enter their rooms without a key. Guests will be able to operate all equipment in the room using a tablet. Cleaning and cloakroom tasks will also be handled by robots.

“The hotel can reduce personnel costs to less than one-third those of conventional hotels of a similar size,” said Hideo Sawada, president and CEO of Huis Ten Bosch. If the trial goes well, the company will open similar smart hotels in Japan and overseas.

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