There Is Still a Real Reluctance to Use Service Robots in the Business Sector

Questions & Answers

Will artificial intelligence soon take over customer service? Discussions on automation have tended to focus heavily on the use of robotics in the production sector. Yet service robots endowed with artificial intelligence also allow for automation in more complex settings, such as customer service. In this Q&A, ZEW economist Irene Bertschek discusses descriptive evidence on the use of service robots in Germany’s IT industry. The evidence was gathered in a collaborative study carried out by the ZEW team and Professor Martin Przewloka (University of Marburg).

Robots are now a familiar sight on the production line. But what about in the service industry?

Discussions on automation have generally focussed on the production sector rather than the service sector. Yet many aspects of the latter are now becoming susceptible to automation thanks to service robots and digital assistants, which can independently and intelligently carry out tasks such as answering customer enquiries, transporting orders and ensuring the security of business facilities. In order to perform these tasks, robots do not always need to be endowed with humanoid features; a voice-operated computer programme, for example, might be all that is required to respond to customer enquiries. The technological basis for such robots is artificial intelligence, which allows the robot to learn through experience. By harnessing new information, such systems can become ever more intelligent while carrying out tasks more efficiently and reliably.

In what sectors have service robots been used so far?

In our study, we carried out a survey on the use of service robots in the information industry, which includes the branches of information and communications technologies (ICT), media services, and knowledge-intensive services. The survey revealed that, at present, just under two per cent of businesses in the information industry use service robots. A further five per cent were planning to use robots for the first time or to expand their current usage in the next five years. As might be expected, the trailblazers in this area are the tech-savvy ICT businesses, over five per cent of which already use service robots, while over twelve per cent plan to do so within the next five years. It is also in the ICT branch that the use of service robots is regarded as most necessary in future.

What goals are pursued with the use of service robotics?

Such systems can be used for a wide range of purposes, including marketing and image development, enhancing quality levels, and boosting efficiency, productivity and flexibility. As in the production sector, however, the key question is whether service robots tend to supplement human labour or to replace it. Where automation and computerisation are concerned, it has been shown that technological devices tend to replace human labour in routine tasks, while supplementing it in more complex processes. Furthermore, businesses in the ICT sector can much better imagine human labour being replaced by service robots than businesses across the information industry as a whole. On average, around 30 per cent of the latter stated they could imagine such a scenario, compared to over 40 per cent of ICT businesses.

What about attitudes across society as a whole? Are particular businesses or branches shying away from the use of such systems?

Digital assistants such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa have already made their way into many private households. The extent to which customers want to be served by such assistants largely depends on what they are seeking. The majority of businesses in the information industry believe their customers expect to be served exclusively by human beings. A further 16 per cent of businesses would only use service robots if their customers were unable to tell whether they were being served by a human or a robot. The businesses least likely to consider the use of digital assistants for customer service are those operating in knowledge-intensive fields. The tasks involved in the practice of law, architecture, advertising, and market research, for example, are simply too complex to be automated. In Germany, then, there is still a real reluctance to use service robots in the business sector. Nevertheless, technological advances on the one hand and demographic changes on the other are likely to contribute to greater acceptance of such technologies in future. In Asia, by contrast, there is already a much greater openness toward the use of service robots, even in areas such as healthcare.