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True Role Expected of Service Robots in the Age of IoT<Series 1 /3>

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The service robot market is expected to grow significantly in the future, and the roles that service robots play are not just limited to attracting people. In the age when IoT (Internet of Things) takes hold, service robots will be called upon to play the role of collecting information from people as front-end devices.

IoT is the connection of all things to the Internet, and “things” point not only to information communication devices such as PCs and smartphones but also all kinds of objects in our surroundings such as desks and chairs.

The purpose of IoT is to collect information through things (i.e. front-end devices) equipped with sensors, while accumulating and analyzing the information in the cloud via the Internet (using AI when necessary), and providing feedback of the results to people through things. Feedback includes solutions to problems faced by people and new proposals. Service robots are also used as front-end devices for IoT, but their characteristic that starkly differs from front-end devices like PCs and smartphones is their ability to actively approach people. A feature in service robots not found in other IoT front-end devices can be said to be their ability to approach people through gestures, conversation, etc.

In 2015, the government announced the market growth target for service robots (approximately twice as much as current figures by 2020) in its New Robot Strategy, and in reality service robots are broadly attracting attention in society along those lines, and they are starting to be used widely in business situations.

Mounting interest in communication-type robots

While there are various applications of service robots in business, including fields such as medical care, security, nursing care and welfare, as well as customer service and guidance, there has been a mounting interest in communication-type robots that utilize artificial intelligence (AI) and tactfully converse with people, especially after the appearance of SoftBank’s Pepper in fall 2015.

Communication-type robots have often been implemented in stores for the purpose of attracting customers, but their compatibility with multiple language has boosted their implementation for reception and customer service since 2015. In other words, they are being used not only as a tool to attract customers, but also for the purpose of assisting human work.

Human beings gather information in an arbitrary manner

Incidentally, the purpose of IoT as mentioned above is to solve problems and make new proposals. That is, the goal is to make new proposals through the company’s own products and services—in other words, to provide new value to customers. Toward that end, it is important to accurately understand how customers are using the company’s own products and services. It is no exaggeration to say that the true role of service robots, as IoT front-end devices, is found here.

While human beings unconsciously gather information in an arbitrary manner, robots are not the same. They record all kinds of information based on how they are programmed. That is also one of the characteristics of robots. The utilization of that characteristic may bring about the possibility to help people become aware of facts that they could not notice until then by gathering, accumulating, and analyzing information that human beings could not gather.

The important point in gathering information

Yukio Honda, Professor at the Department of Robotics, Faculty of Engineering, Osaka Institute of Technology, indicates regarding the key point in utilizing service robots as front-end devices for information gathering as follows: “The key point in gathering information from users with service robots is to come into contact with users without making them feel it is cumbersome.”

For example, POS systems have been broadly implemented at retail stores, enabling stores to obtain purchasing information of customers and analyze trends of best-selling products based on the POS data. To step even further and provide new value to customers, it is necessary to establish a service robot that can instantly analyze the gender, age, hobbies, and purchasing power of anonymous customers that enter the store, providing customer service and making proposals based on that.

In order to perfect a smart robot like that, a lot of information needs to be gathered from customers, and the important point toward that end is to communicate with the other party (person) in a way that does not make them feel stressed. For example, the robot needs to be capable of stress-free communication like POS systems that can gather information just by scanning items with a “beep.”

To repeat, in order to create new value in the age of IoT, how information is gathered from people with service robots functioning as front-end devices will become crucial. Furthermore, the key point in gathering information is the ability for robots to communicate with people without making them aware that it is collecting their information. Otherwise, “It would be sufficient to deal with individual customers through the combination of surveillance cameras and POS system,” says Professor Honda. In other words, there would be no reason for the existence of service robots as front-end devices for gathering information.

For the symbiosis of people and service robots

In order to leverage service robots as IoT front-end devices, Professor Honda says, “It is most important to check [their effect] out in the world, and by doing so it would be possible to prove that robots are different from mere sensors.”

Currently, various service robots including Pepper have been practically implemented, and many demonstration experiments are being conducted. By doing so, it is being confirmed that service robots can live in symbiosis with people in social life and business situations.

In order to provide new value, which is the true purpose of IoT, the use of service robots as front-end devices to communicate with people and smoothly gather information will become a crucial factor.


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