A tale of two robots

  • Technology
  • February 5, 2018
  • Michael Goldthorpe
A tale of two robots

Robots are supposedly the future of retail, but so far, their uptake has been pretty hit-and-miss. Michael Goldthorpe, managing partner at Hunch, considers where robots from recent news headlines have been going wrong.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was 1859 when Dickens wrote Tale of Two Cities and in short, the period was so far like the present … it’s downright scary.

And that’s before you start talking about robots.

This week I read two stories about robots that looked so similar they could have been brothers. One in a Sydney airport and another in a Scottish supermarket. Both experiments in the future of customer service. 

Introducing ‘Chip’, he’s here to help.

Air New Zealand partnered with CommonWealth Bank to run a five day trial with ‘Chip’. CDO Avi Golan says “the experiment is another way we are pushing the boundaries to ensure we remain at the forefront of technology which will allow us to further enhance the experience we offer our customers". And that’s great. Boundaries pushed. Apparently, ‘Chip’ can ‘converse’ with customers and point them in the right direction. But the robot itself? It’s scary.

Farewell ‘Fabio’, he just got fired.  

Same day I clocked a story about Fabio. Similar story. Similar tech. But he started work a few days earlier. And that’s how long it took them to ‘fire’ him. ‘Fabio’ was part of an experiment run for a BBC programme. It was his job to interact with customers saying hello, telling jokes and helping them find stuff in the store. As it happened he freaked people out. It’s not hard to see why.

Can we replace humans with robots?

That’s the goal in the examples above. And it’s not quite working. Yet. But in hundreds of other examples, it already does. I reckon Air New Zealand’s most successful robot is the kiosk that checks you in. I also love the robots in the supermarket that beep and weigh my stuff so I can whistle through the automatic check out. And let’s not forget the quiet brilliance of automatic teller machines, helpful little robots that give you access to your cash at any time of the day or night. But things go wrong when robots start looking like people. Or do they?

Leaping the uncanny valley. 

Idealog recently published a piece about a business called Soul Machine. Their goal is to build life-like, learny, interacty avatars that talk to you just like humans. And they’re next-level brilliant and they seem to be working. But why is that?

Back in the 1970s, a Japanese robotics guy called Masahiro Mori noticed that the more robots resembled humans, the more people connected with them. To a point. But as soon as he started adding synthetic skin, people began to freak out. His theory was that robots without human characteristics were a bit boring. But too many human characteristics and they generate a sense of disquiet and even dread - like a high-fiving android in a Supermarket. Mori identified the balance between nearly human and fully human as the uncanny valley – and avoiding it is all about understanding people.

Moore’s law keeps giving us more. We need to stay focused on people.

Back in 1965, a tech guy called Gordon Moore (co-founder of Intel) observed that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles every two years. Loosely translated that says the potential applications of computerised technology double every two years. It’s exponential technological change. And we’re living it. And it’s changing the world. The way we work is being disrupted. The way we communicate has changed out of sight. Politics is all over the place. Economists are re-working the rules. Even reliable constants like currencies are all up for grabs as technology pushes us ‘forward’.

But the thing that doesn’t change is people. We still like to surround ourselves with friends and family. We need the essentials to keep us fed and warm and we like the treats to spoil each other and create experiences. We’re happy when we feel safe and sad when we’re scared or alone. These are the constants of the human condition. And these are the fundamental building blocks of marketing. And that’s the point.

Forget www try Who? What? Why?

Living through the disruptive pace of Moore’s Law it’s easy to get caught up in the shiny and new. The robots aren’t coming, they’re already here. And those algorithms and platforms and chatbots give us smart new ways to grab attention and sell more stuff.

But if you’re finding it hard to keep up, just do what we do and go back to basics. Ask yourself three simple questions: Who are we trying to help? What can we do to help them? and Why will they care? And from that baseline of solving genuine problems for real people, the future will be so much like the present… only better.

That’s what I reckon, what do you think?

This story originally appeared on StopPress.

​ ​

This is a community discussion forum. Comment is free but please respect our rules:

  1. Don’t be abusive or use sweary type words
  2. Don’t break the law: libel, slander and defamatory comments are forbidden
  3. Don’t resort to name-calling, mean-spiritedness, or slagging off
  4. Don’t pretend to be someone else.

If we find you doing these things, your comments will be edited without recourse and you may be asked to go away and reconsider your actions.
We respect the right to free speech and anonymous comments. Don’t abuse the privilege.


Military-style semi-automatics ban announced

  • News
  • March 21, 2019
  • The Register team
Military-style semi-automatics ban announced

As of 3pm on March 21, a wide range of semi-automatic weapons have been reclassified under section 74A(c) of the Arms Act as requiring an E endorsement on a firearms license. This means they can no longer be sold to those with A-category gun licenses, and their purchase now requires police approval.

Read more

Retailers gather for insights at NZ Retail and The Register's breakfast

  • News
  • March 21, 2019
  • The Register
Retailers gather for insights at NZ Retail and The Register's breakfast

NZ Retail and The Register’s sales and marketing breakfast saw dozens of Kiwi retailers come together to network, sharing tips and tricks and absorbing expert advice.

Read more

Who stole Christmas?

  • News
  • March 21, 2019
  • Kelly Withers
Who stole Christmas?

Results are starting to trickle in from Christmas 2018/2019, and for many retailers, they're a little disappointing. Paydar chief executive and co-founder Kelly Withers explores the data.

Read more

Social scoreboard

Zavy and The Register have worked together to create a scoreboard that compares how the top 25 traditional media advertising spenders in New Zealand have performed on social media over the past 30 days, updated in real time.

Concept to closet
Business coverage of New Zealand Fashion Week.
Town centres
A positive retail environment over the past 12 ...
Amazon Arrival
Keeping up with all things Amazon as it ...
The Retail Yearbook 2017
As we battle our way through the busiest ...
Hospitality enhancing retail
Some think food and integrated hospitality offerings will ...
The future is bright
We spoke with four retailers in their twenties ...
Spotlight on signage
At first glance, the humble in-store sign might ...
Red Awards 2016
The Red Awards for retail interior design celebrate ...
Auckland Unitary Plan
Auckland is changing. The Unitary Plan will decide ...
How to open a store
Sarah Dunn considers what it would take to ...
All things to all people
Kiwi retailers share their omnichannel strategies.
Rising stars
Retail's top young achievers.
Delivering on your promises
The sale isn't over until your item is ...
Retail in heartland New Zealand
Retailers keep the regions pumping, but how strong ...
Women in retail help one another. We spoke ...
The changing face of retail
Shifting demographics are creating big changes in New ...
The retail yearbook
With the help of experts in the retail ...
Retail rogues
We put the spotlight on staff training. Jai ...
Here come the giants
Topshop has arrived in Auckland’s CBD, David Jones ...
Window shopping: A spotlight on social media
Sarah Dunn and Elly Strang look at how ...
From retail to e-tail
Ecommerce has become part of the way mainstream ...
Loyalty in the digital age
How are retailers maintaining loyalty? Sarah Dunn, Elly ...
The Innovators | In partnership with Spark Business
Technology is rapidly changing the retail industry as ...

Chinese businesspeople raise millions for Christchurch victims

  • News
  • March 21, 2019
  • Radio New Zealand
Chinese businesspeople raise millions for Christchurch victims

A group of visiting Chinese businesspeople have raised $2.35 million for victims of the Christchurch mass shooting.

Read more

The Retail NZ Awards: What does it take to be a winning retailer?

Take this time to shine with the upcoming Retail NZ awards, a chance to show the retail industry what makes your business stand out. No ...


Hunting & Fishing New Zealand voluntarily pulls military-style assault weapons from sale

  • News
  • March 20, 2019
  • Sarah Dunn
Hunting & Fishing New Zealand voluntarily pulls military-style assault weapons from sale

In the wake of the attack on Christchurch’s Muslim community on March 15, strong calls for changes to New Zealand’s gun last have been made. Trade Me was the first retailer to act, halting the sale of all semi-automatic weapons on its platform, and it has now been joined by Hunting & Fishing New Zealand.

Read more
Next page
Results for
About us.

The Register provides essential industry news and intelligence, updated daily. And the digital newsletter delivers the latest news to your inbox twice a week — for free!

©2009–2015 Tangible Media. All rights reserved.
Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Privacy policy.

The Register

Content marketing/advertising? Email or call 022 639 3004

View Media Kit