What the rise of the robots means for the next generation of consumers

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When did you last chat to a robot?

It probably hasn’t been long. Conversational interfaces are suddenly everywhere – from news apps, to videogames, to fitness trackers, to virtual assistants like Siri and Google Now. Even if you don’t have a laptop or a smartphone (and if so, how are you reading this?), you’ve probably sworn at an automated telephone system at some point over the last year or two.

While it can sometimes be tricky to get these robots to understand us, especially if you have a non-American accent, the systems are getting better and better every month. Combined with recent advances in RFID technology, we’re not far from a Star-Trek-like scenario where we tell our computers what we want and they do it for us. Before that transpires, however, we need to consider what that means for the next generation.

For example, have you ever heard someone thank a computer for helping them? Not often, as robots don’t tend to react to ungratefulness. But our kids take cues from our behavior and might not understand the difference between how to talk to a person and how to talk to a robot – so a future part of parenthood might involve explaining the difference between people and AIs.

Similarly, the sometimes-stilted way we talk to our virtual assistants might have a non-negligible influence on how our children learn to talk. Whenever I speak to Siri, I tend to use the same voice I use when struggling with a bad phone connection – slightly too loud and over-pronouncing every word. That’s not how I’d want my children to speak to real people, and yet AIs are already being touted as an English-learning tool for Japanese kids.

Either way, tomorrow’s consumers are growing up in a world with a lot of robots, and it’s worth considering how that’s going to change their expectations for interacting with your company. They might prefer to talk to a robot in a customer service situation, for example, if it means not sitting in a telephone queue for half an hour, or if the matter is sensitive. Getting to that point, of course, will require trust that the robot will be able to solve the issue, which will no doubt be a major hurdle.

Once we’re at a point where AI can interpret speech as reliably as a human, however, a strange thing may happen to society. Assuming we’ve coded the robots so that they’re always kind, polite, thoughtful and attentive, suddenly humans will become the bad guys – the ones who lie, curse and argue. What will that mean for the way we see our place in the world.

That’s a long way off, of course. Before we get to that point we’ll have to deal with hundreds of other problems, from AI-induced unemployment to ethical concerns over military androids. But whatever happens, the robots are coming – and you need to be ready.

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Michael Mischker
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Michael Mischker

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