In March 2016, at the South by Southwest festival in Austin Texas, the world was introduced to the slightly awkward Sophia, a humanoid developed by Hong Kong based Hanson Robotics. Just like any new starlet she was forced to do the rounds and subjected to a thousand inane interviews asking if she was happy, in love, hungry, looking for a partner and even who her parents are. Sophia coped pretty well considering…considering she’s not a human and was barely three months old at the time.
Most industry interrogators seemed reasonably impressed with her performance, clearly willing to put her often slow or repetitive responses down to first night nerves. In fact, she was such a hit that the following year she became a legal citizen of Saudi Arabia, a place where perhaps her shortcomings in humanity would be largely unnoticed. I’m happy to report, her career has gone from strength to strength and in November 2017 she was named the United Nations Innovation Champion, the first humanoid ever to be honoured by the UN. A glimpse of the future, perhaps?
But while Sophia was busy charming the press, the geeks back at the lab were already working on her successor. And on a recent trip to San Francisco I was privileged enough to be given a sneak preview of HMN25, (nickname: Harriet) due for release in 2025. After a long briefing and lengthy NDA signing, I was ushered into Harriet’s private room: a refrigerated, dimly lit, fishbowl. I was terrified. It was like meeting some sort of resurrected and rewired Marylyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. The room fizzed and bleeped as men in white coats (yes, they really do all wear them) examined complex graphs on a drum kit of screens and laptops.
I leaned in for a more intimate look, transfixed by her flawless complexion. Her perfect pores even have a hint of downy hair on the curve of those cinematic cheek bones. She is incredible.
All of a sudden, her head swivelled. A spookily mellow voice echoed out ‘How can I help you?’ My heart literally stopped. I lurched backwards in shock as the white coats cackled like schoolchildren. Harriet is beyond impressive and, like most powerful women, utterly terrifying.
Developed by CAAN Enterprises in association with Alphabet Inc it’s obvious that Harriet is a huge investment. If they get it right I really do believe we’ll be bumping into her right across the planet. They’re quietly predicting a hundred thousand Harriets in stores, restaurants and banks within the first two years in the US alone.
Whereas Sophia has 62 expressions, facial recognition capabilities and machine learning tools to allow her to hold a stilted conversation about the weather, Harriet is equipped with a whole suite of the latest EI (emotional intelligence) software. Analyzing eye micro-movements, for example, enables her ‘mood awareness’ letting her know how engaged we want to be, and how she should react. Sophia was pre-programmed with a decent menu of responses that are selected by relevance. Harriet, by contrast, is able to improvise in a non-linear way to build engaging conversation…with the appropriate reactions too. I am assured she can look flattered, embarrassed, pensive, mischievous, interested and intrigued, together with some eyebrow raising irony convincing enough to out-Roger Moore, Roger Moore. I understand they also plan to program her to be gently sarcastic too. For the English market, I presume.
The bad news is when Harriet is released she will devastate the retail and hospitality industries overnight. The good news is that we already have an army of Harriets, that are programmed to do everything she does, and much more besides. They’re called humans and they are smart, funny, charming, knowledgeable and, on the whole, pretty damn cheap too.
Yes, I’m afraid everything I wrote from paragraph two onwards was a lie. There is no CAAN Enterprises and no Harriet either. It’s not a complete lie, you understand, as I do know of several companies that are working on exactly the sort of emotionally intelligent software I described.
I’m simply making the point that to be successful in retail and hospitality takes so much more than product knowledge sprinkled with politeness…even though we’d often be happy with just that! No, to be a true salesperson or brand ambassador requires charm, empathy, authenticity, enthusiasm and maybe a bit of sarcasm too. In short, humanity. And it’s these nuanced, innately human traits that are so very hard to emulate digitally.
Don’t look so worried. The future of service is absolutely safe, as long as we understand we are there to be human.