Service Robots: The New Normal, or Ahead of Their Time?

In Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky IV” we got a glimpse of robot-human interaction in a household. During the movie, a robotic butler named “Sico” was seen performing multiple chores and interacting with humans; futuristic at the moment, and even years later, but not so much today.

Robot assistants are becoming more common and affordable as new technologies evolve. Starwood’s Aloft hotels use a robot named “Botlr” that provides room service to its guests, “Temi” is a personal robot that can assist with various tasks, including playing music, ordering food, and answering calls. Robotic technology is not only limited to robotic assistants – Amazon introduced its cashier-less grocery store “Amazon Go” in 2015 and has further increased its presence in the United States with its “Just Walk Out Shopping” technology. Boston restaurant “Spyce” has a fully staffed robotic kitchen with seven automated cooking pots that can cook up meals in three minutes or less. And, despite some bumps in the road, self-driving vehicle technology continues to experience an increase in R&D activity and production across the United States.

As a society, we seek out ways to simplify and improve our quality of life, and the proliferation of robotic technology in recent years leads us to believe robots can help us achieve both goals. As part of Rockbridge’s annual National Technology Readiness Survey, which is sponsored by the Robert H. Smith School of Business and Intuit, we have tested the desirability of emerging robotic technologies since 2015.[1]  The figure shows the desirability of seven service robot concepts from our last wave (2018) and comparisons with 2016.

Like last year, the most desirable robot was the home assistant, a device that can perform household chores. Consumers continue to be more open to having a robot assist with physical labor tasks inside their home. Cashier-less stores and having a package delivered by an automated pilotless drone are also positively received by U.S. consumers. However, there was a slight drop in desirability among all emergent technologies.

Negative news, such as the recent fatality involving a self-driving vehicle, can generate distrust among consumers, not only for self-driving vehicle technology, but also for all emerging technologies, thus generating a backlash in desirability for technological advancements. Lack of understanding for new technologies can also result in low desirability among consumers. “Amazon Go” is a revolutionary store concept that fully relies on artificial intelligence. There are no lines, no wait time, and no cashiers; however, these features are perceived as negatives among certain groups, particularly those 55+ years of age who find it significantly more undesirable (29%) than Millennials (16%) and Gen X consumers (21%).

Robotic technology will be driven by artificial intelligence (AI), a subject on which consumers have different views. A quarter (26%) of U.S. consumers believe new developments in artificial intelligence will augment humans in jobs, creating new job opportunities.  In contrast, slightly over a third (35%) feel artificial intelligence will replace humans, exacerbating unemployment.  U.S. consumers are equally “hopeful” (50%) and “fearful” (50%) about artificial intelligence.

Will service robots and AI transform society?  In the case of service robots, it is entirely up to us, the consumers, whether we will allow such advancements into our everyday lives.

About the Study: The National Technology Readiness Survey is conducted by Rockbridge Associates, Inc. and A. Parasuraman, and has tracked technology and e-commerce trends since 1999.  The survey is co-sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Service at the Robert H. Smith School of Business.  The most recent wave was conducted in April 2018 and is based on an online survey wave of 1053 U.S. adults sampled at random from a consumer research panel. Results are weighted to match census characteristics.

Written by: Alonso Espino, Research Manager

[1] For this study, robots are defined as technology that can perform physical tasks (e.g., driving, housework, serving in a restaurant), operate autonomously without needing instruction, and are directed by computers without help from people.