What in-store robots tell us about society.

I had an intriguing conversation with a colleague earlier this week.

She told me about the new "retail robots" in many Asian countries, including China, Singapore, and Thailand.

These in-store humanoids accompany guests throughout the shop. They use computer vision to analyse the customer and offer recommendations on products they might like, along with discount codes. 

In last week's newsletter, I shared a link to a story about "Marty", the googly-eyed robot that has both bemused and amused US grocery shoppers. Mainly, he seems to get in the way. 

What struck me most was the move into "social robotics" in Asia, however. Rather than restrict robots to the warehouse, large stores are now using them as the friendly face of the company. 

The distinctions in retail robots worldwide reveal much about technology, culture, and even philosophy.

They are also pretty entertaining, surprising, and sometimes very creepy. 

This story will cover: 

  • The "Uncanny Valley" problem.

  • In-store robots around the world.

  • How do robots shape our behaviours?

  • Why do we put faces on robots?


The idea of a robot performing a "human" task is no longer alien to most of us.

We have seen the impressive videos of robots sorting through millions of Alibaba items in China.

We know about Walmart's army of robots that can stack shelves and scrub the floors.

We are waiting for Amazon's delivery robots to hit streets near us. 

The arguments in favour of these developments share some commonalities: Efficiency, scale, reliability.

Walmart puts it simply: "We get robots to do the work our employees don't enjoy."

This is just one strand of a complex narrative, however.

In customer service, they talk of the "breakpoint". The point at which a customer "breaks" and will no longer communicate with a company, often due to frustrations over prices or cumbersome returns policies.

In robotics, they talk of a similar concept: The Uncanny Valley.

This unsettling phenomenon occurs when a robot resembles a person in some ways, but is still not convincing. When this occurs, the audience is disinclined to engage with the robot. 

By putting robots in menial roles, companies can remain a comfortable distance from the precipice. 

However, the rewards on offer for a fully-functioning, customer-pleasing robot are too great for many businesses to resist. 

 The rise of the retail robot:

  • The "humanoid robot market" is expected to reach $13.4 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 51% from 2017.

  • According to willrobotstakemyjob.com, there is a 92% chance that retail salespersons will be replaced by machines.

  • Retail is one of just two industries to have lost jobs in the US in the last few years. 140,000 jobs have gone since January 2017.

  • 10% of US retail sales are made online today. That number will keep creeping up, but most sales are made in store. Stores are in need of a revamp for the digital age, however.

From a business perspective, the financial case for in-store robots seems secure.

However, this can only truly work if customers want to interact with the robots.

Although a nascent area of study, initial research has found that robots can increase shopper satisfaction. 

 A survey undertaken in a Japanese shopping mall found that 65% of people preferred interacting with a robot assistant rather than a person. The robot handed out flyers and provided information about the stores.

Some commented that the robot treats everyone the same, regardless of their appearance. More than 90% said they would interact with the robot again, rather than seeking out a human assistant. 

These results are far from conclusive, however. This particular robot has restricted use cases and the survey responses open a range of ethical, technological, and cultural questions.

Answering these will tell us much about the robots we will create in future. 

As we will see in the next section, in the pursuit of robo-driven growth some businesses are willing to peer over the edge of the Uncanny Valley.

An intrepid few have approached it in the style of Evel Knievel, hoping for a miraculous landing on the other side. 


“The advantage of a robot that looks human-like is that people feel more comfortable with it being close to them.

The big disadvantage is that you expect it to be able to do human things and it often can’t.”

— Anouk van Maris, Robot Cognition Specialist

The robots we choose to create tell us more than just how far our technology has advanced.

The US is home to some of the best R&D facilities worldwide.

However, humanoid robots remain a rarity in US retail stores. Robots like Marty are given comically cartoonish features to highlight that they are definitely not human.

Digital assistants like Amazon's Alexa are enclosed in black boxes, rather than a human form. 

Other endeavours, such as the parkour-practising robots from Boston Dynamics, focus on dexterous manipulation and bipedal movement rather than social pleasantries. 

These are sophisticated reproductions of human actions. However, they do not pretend to be anything other than mechanical reproductions of the "real" thing. 

 A survey in Europe asked if it would be ethically acceptable for children to grow attached to a robot, as they would to a person. Only 40% of respondents said it would be acceptable. 

John Lewis, a UK retailer, is working on a new framework to define "How a robot should respond to humans to ensure people find them trust-provoking and safe."

Other countries take a different view on these issues. 

 In Japan, some in-store robots cloak their artificial nature in an accurate human-like form. 

Great effort has gone into developing the audio-visual perception of these robots, but it is also clear that they are intended to look like people.

We should always be careful not to draw sweeping, general conclusions from a small pool of evidence, of course. Nonetheless, it is revealing if we view this through a cultural lens.

 The Shinto "animism" belief, popular in Japan, places humans in a flat structure, alongside other beings and objects. 

It is just as possible for an object (say, a robot) to have a spirit and, therefore, a sense of intentionality, as it is for a human to contain a spirit. 

The monotheistic beliefs of many Western countries create a hierarchy with a deity at the top, then humans, then animals. 

It is the responsibility of a deity to create beings and maintain the hierarchical order. People should not create fleshy likenesses of themselves. 

Western robots typically do not upset that ecosystem, with the notable exception of the sex industry. There is a comment to made on moral hypocrisy there, I am sure. 

This is just one interpretation and it is far from all-encompassing. The barriers that separate cultures are porous, at best. There are no clear lines of demarcation between countries when it comes to beliefs. 

That said, we can state that the in-store robots of each country do tell us something about the prevailing tastes.

Moreover, they certainly tell us about the economic climate. 

 In South Korea, a range of cute robots with digital, animal faces has arrived in stores recently.

One nationwide chain of convenience stores introduced robots that can identify customers and handle all checkout interactions. They are shaped by curved lines, which people are primed to prefer.

 Notably, the company's CEO referred to the upcoming increase in the country's minimum wage as an incentive to push this innovation forward. 

Of course, he also referenced the "great customer experience" in a TV interview, but the line about the minimum wage stands out.

If reliable, likeable robots can replace increasingly costly people, they will get the job. 

 In Singapore, Singtel (a telecommunications company, believe it or not) customers are greeted by a roving robot that can guide people around the store.

The robot uses facial recognition to identify the individual and can personalise the offers they receive based on their purchase history.

The Singtel robots can display a human staff member's face and customers can interact with a person if they prefer. 

 Thailand's Dinsow can be programmed for a range of purposes.

It has often been used as an in-store assistant to answer common shopper queries.

He really takes advantage of the expressive power of eyes and he stands at just 30cm tall. The most popular use for Dinsow is as a companion for elderly people, as it happens. 

 As one might expect, there is seemingly no end to the innovations in in-store robotics over in China.

The robots are a direct reflection of the challenges Chinese retailers face today. In particular, they focus on providing extra labour to fulfil the needs of a growing, increasingly wealthy population.

For example, China offers people-free grocery stores - a promise that applies only to the staff. Customers must still co-habit the space while they shop in Hema's stores.

Alibaba owns a range of robot restaurants and JD.com has launched robot deliveries in 10 cities across China. 

Incidentally, Alibaba seems to sell some sort of robot butler, which is a big part of the future I feel I was sold as a child. It's labelled as a "waiter", but could likely be retrained. 

UBTECH's Cruzr robot from China is one of the most comprehensive examples of this new age of "humanoid". It can be used in stores, in offices, at home, and is cloud-based. Of course, he has a friendly face with big eyes and a simple smile.  

Why Do We Put Faces on Robots? 

The common consensus is that we are hard-wired to look for faces. We can't resist being drawn to a face, when one shows up.

Sometimes, we even invent faces and think we can see them in objects - like this packet of beef that looks like Vladimir Putin

New research suggests that we are instead socialised to put so much emphasis on faces.

Primates who were raised without any face to face contact did not exhibit the same brain activity as other primates when introduced to animals later in life. 

Whether it is an innate or a learned brain function, each person can recognise 5,000 faces on average. It makes sense to put a face on a robot if a company wants to invite engagement. 

Eyes, in particular, can also express a wide range of emotions. Just watch Wall-E if you need convincing. 

The presence of a pair of eyes can also decrease the likelihood of dishonest behaviour.

study from Carnegie Mellon University found that the presence of a robot "with two eyes, looking at you once in a while" is enough to deter people from cheating at a simple task. 

Once more, this brings a moral dimension to in-store robots. Even if we don't believe that the robot is watching us, its eyes serve as a reminder that "someone" is. 

Security cameras can help reduce shoplifting, but a pair of eyes would be even more effective. 

As Guy Hoffman, professor of engineering at Cornell University, puts it, "It comes down to this idea of being judged more than being monitored."

Summing up

On the whole, form follows function with the design of retail robots. They use design to elicit the desired response, and that all starts with those cartoon faces. 

Retailers want shoppers to lower their guard. The robots are small, they have curved edges, and they fit the universally agreed definition of "cute".

There is no threat to human agency over the retail arena, on the face of it.

Nonetheless, we are being manipulated into taking specific actions and a different approach to design would cause us to behave differently.  

Another study from Cornell found that robots can encourage dishonest behaviour, just as they can discourage it. If a robot cheats at a game, for example, people tend to go along with the the robot's decision - provided it is in their interests. =

As such, we should pay close attention to the environment that is created by the presence of a robot. We should also consider the behaviours we want to encourage, before designing the next generation of robots. 

Interestingly, service robots tend to be female when they are life-like, but male when they have cartoon features. The UN has released a report about these gender biases in AI, which is discussed in this article.

Another example would be Sophia, who is now a citizen of Saudia Arabia, strangely enough. Tellingly, she has a bald, transparent head that allows people to see the wires, combined with a very realistic face. 

It is possible, as we have seen in Japan, to create a life-like robot today.

The question is whether the intended audience is ready for one - or will be in the near future. There are deeply-held beliefs that may force developers to maintain a visible line between humans and machines.

Where that line is drawn depends on the local culture, technology, and economy. 

If you want to know a country, take a good look at its robots. 

Clark Boyd