Can robots replace human interactions?

December 20, 2016
4 minutes read

Like many other people, I’ve sometimes struggled with finding the ideal balance between using technology to interact and hitting the “off” switch – both in my own life and in making recommendations to companies.

At Chicago Ideas Week talk “The Implications of Artificial Intelligence,” panelists sought to make sense of the future of that balance when answering the question: Can robots replace human interactions? Adam Waytz, psychologist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, offered a noteworthy analogy by drawing a parallel between AI’s ability to meet emotional needs and sugar’s ability to meet physical survival needs.

If a person is incredibly hungry, sugar can work really well in a pinch. Similarly, conversing via – or even with – smart computers can easily and sufficiently satisfy the basic needs of an interaction. Aligning with Mintel Trend Who Needs Humans?, AI can creatively and sufficiently offer advice or provide direction regarding a product or service:

  • Yahoo Sports created a chatbot named Blitz that can coach fantasy football players about how to win each game. Operating within the Yahoo Bots app, Blitz pulls information from users’ Yahoo Sports accounts to help them learn about players’ performance and potential.
  • Absolut Vodka launched a Facebook Messenger chatbot in select cities that tells consumers where they can go to get a free paid for by Absolut.
  • Facebook and Tommy Hilfiger partnered to create a flagship chatbot that can answer questions, provide behind-the-scenes content and sell items directly from the runway.

On the other hand – although difficult to imagine in the beginning of holiday cookie season – there is such a thing as too much sugar. Just as an overabundance of it can make us sick, interacting solely through technology can be unhealthy, as well. Tech is always trendy, but not always necessary. In some cases, consumers may find themselves wanting to get answers to their questions from knowledgeable humans (see Mintel Trend Return to the Experts) or turning away from devices to forge in-person connections with family and friends (see Mintel Trend Switch Off):

  • French beauty brand Yves Rocher announced it will not be kitting its stores out with high-tech digital offerings after the brand’s customers simply did not use them during trials. Instead, the brand is focusing on offering one-on-one communication between customers and the store’s employees, banking on the idea that expert advice will trump high-tech gadgets.
  • In the UK, Dixons Carphone developed a prototype button for appliances and gadgets that will connect people directly to customer services and is designed for those who are less tech-savvy.
  • Australia-based pasta sauce brand Dolmio unveiled limited edition pepper crackers that block Wi-Fi signals during meals. It has produced 3,500 Pepper Hackers, which can both crack pepper and shut down TVs, Wi-Fi and mobile devices to stop technology disrupting family mealtimes.

As the analogy continues, we should remain cognizant of our personal intake levels regarding both sugar and technology. It may often be the case that a balanced blend of AI and humans works well in satisfying the need for both efficiency and emotional competency:

  • Facebook Messenger and 1-800-Flowers launched a chatbot that allows users to place orders and chat with a human customer service rep directly.

The technology that exists today enhances our lives in a number of ways, but it can also seem inescapable at times. Brands would be wise to consistently consider ways to innovate, but simultaneously should ask themselves whether each application of technology is truly useful – or is merely leading consumers to a hypothetical sugar overdose.

Stacy Bingle is a Consumer Trends Consultant at Mintel. Stacy joined Mintel in 2013 bringing with her an exciting blend of CPG, agency and marketing experience. Her time is spent traveling the US engaging clients across global CPG, Beauty and Financial Services in meaningful discussions around the consumer trends that will propel their businesses forward.

Stacy Bingle
Stacy Bingle

Stacy Bingle is Senior Consumer Trends Consultant at Mintel. She engages clients in meaningful discussions around the consumer trends that will propel their businesses forward.

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