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After almost 100 years since their invention, robots are about to go mainstream but not quite in the manner anticipated.


On the 25th January 1921 in the National Theatre in Prague, the world changed. It was the premiere of a science fiction play by Czech writer Karel Čapek titled ‘R.U.R.’ which stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots) and marked the first use of the word “robot”. The word itself was derived from the Czech word for “forced labour” and was used to describe an artificial person.

From then until now the dream of humanoid robots who will obey each and every command of their human owners has fascinated writers, filmmakers, engineers and technologists, yet they have yet to materialise in any truly usable form, outside of highly controlled industrial environments. Will this dream ever become a reality? Unlikely in the short to medium term, however robots in a slightly different form are starting to permeate more areas of everyday personal and business life.

These robots are Virtual Assistants and they are on the verge of moving into the business mainstream.


The (Unlikely) Rise of The Robots

Despite slick demos of humanoid robots, like the captivating Asimo1from Honda, or the slightly sinister Atlas2from Boston Dynamics, we are as far away from these hardware robots becoming our everyday companions and assistants as we have ever been. The engineering task, in both hardware and software, is just too challenging with current levels of technology and engineering and compounding this is that there is yet to be any truly defined use case and mass market for such devices.

Added to which the sheer cost of these devices would be prohibitive. Considering that a high-end smartphone is now nudging the £1500 price point, a robot of the complexity of Asimo, should it ever be available to the populous, could easily command a price tag equivalent to a luxury car, thus putting it out of the range of many.

The latest estimates, courtesy of Enterprise Innovation,3 state that the global humanoid robot market will hit $5 billion by 2024, but in comparison, the Smart Speaker Market, the primary gateway device to virtual assistant technologies and devices that have a considerably lower cost than humanoid robots, is over the same time period predicted to be worth more than double that, at $11.79 billion.4


The Innovators Dilemma

To compound the issue further traditional innovation methodology would suggest that the function of a humanoid robot is already being disrupted and replaced, in the same way, that markets such as music (disrupted by downloads and streaming) and retail (disrupted by shopping online) have radically transformed. The ‘S-curve of Innovation’, a robust framework that can be used to analyse various industries at their different stages and to explain their successes and failures, takes innovators through four key stages. Fermentation – when a new product or service is created, Growth – the mass adoption of the new product or service, Maturity – the market saturation point, then finally Decline – when it has reached the end of its life.

However, between the Maturity and Decline stage, there is often a step change, a disruption, where the functionality that has been previously provided is then reimagined and provided in a form that is of either greater value or convenience.

Take computing for example. The movement to mobile computing, be that laptop, tablet or smartphone, negated the need to have a traditional desktop computer. Using a computer moved from a very formal process of sitting at a desk, to informal accessing of information on the move with the major players in the desktop market disrupted by the mobile computing manufacturers whose products are now in the pockets of almost everyone.

In humanoid robot terms, even though we have not hit a level of mass adoption or maturity, the desire for this type of functionality is so great that the original technologies have already been disrupted. But how?


Virtual is Reality

To put it simply, robots before they are even readily available, are being replaced by virtual assistants. These technologies, from Amazon, Google and Apple, can provide the functionality of a robot – helpful advice, reminders, the undertaking of routine and repetitive tasks – at an incredibly low price point. But it’s not just information they can process, they can interact with the physical world through the plethora of third-party Internet of Things (IoT) style devices through a rapidly developing ecosystem.


The Developing Ecosystem

According to the 2017 Amazon Annual Report,5 the latest currently published, the rapidly developing ecosystem that surrounds their virtual assistant, Alexa, stands at over 4,000 different partners. Amazon themselves have over 5,000 people working on Alexa and their own ecosystem of virtual assistant technologies.

Almost anything from light bulbs, to sound systems, home automation technologies through to car integration (with the new Alexa Auto) can now be controlled by simply speaking. This is essentially a distribution of the functionality of a humanoid robot, but in smaller more affordable and bite-size chunks of technology.

A user can decide what areas of their home (or business) they wish to have assistance with and then choose the appropriate Alexa-enabled device. This entirely new way of interacting with technology and enabling technology to interact with the physical world has only been on the market for four years, which means we are still in that fermentation phase. However, the popularity of these devices is increasing rapidly, with 2019 being the year of ‘S-curve’ growth. When products move into this phase of consumer adoption, as smartphones did, they then force businesses and organisations’ to adopt them.


It’s the Business

Harnessing virtual assistant technologies to enhance communication and interactions will bring multiple benefits to organisations. Firstly and most importantly it will enable customers to interact with organisations more naturally and with a lower cost. For example, automating customers’ calls and providing natural language responses could result in significant cost savings and possibly more consistent advice and support. The NHSis investing in this technology in partnership with Amazon, to enable citizens to gain health-related advice from Alexa. This would negate some appointments to see a doctor, and, with the vast health-related data available within the NHS, could possibly lead to a more insightful diagnosis.

Secondly, the internal business processes could be automated. Within all organisations, there is an IT Service Desk. How many calls to that service could be automated and responded to via a virtual assistant? More advanced Service Desk technology now allows for automated fixes to users’ devices, triggered by a fault resolution identified by the virtual assistant. This is just the beginning.

Any business or public sector organisation will benefit from this new technology, however, the process of adopting it will require a comprehensive understanding of current internal processes to ensure that as they are automated and then triggered by virtual assistants, they are as accurate as possible.


Curtain Call

As the curtain came down that January evening in 1921 on the premiere of ‘R.U.R’, reviews were being hastily written, peppered with comments such as “philosophically rich and controversial” and “thought-provoking”, and here we are now almost 100 years later and the functionality that these robots promised are finally available to all.

To discuss how virtual assistant technology can benefit your organisation please contact the SCC Innovation Group.


External Links

1Honda :Asimo

 2Boston Dynamics : Atlas

3Enterprise Innovation : Humanoid robot market to hit $5 billion by 2024

4Markets And Markets : Smart Speaker Market – Global Forecast to 2023

5Amazon : 2017 Annual Report

6Huffington Post :  The NHS And Amazon Are Working On A Diagnosis Skill For Alexa