Meet the robot receptionists: a sign of things to come

Asia Pacific / Technology

A good receptionist often has certain characteristics – a helpful manner, a friendly disposition and good organizational skills.

But do they need to be human? Perhaps not anymore. Walk into JLL’s Carrington Street office in Sydney and you will be greeted by new receptionist JiLL, who can assist in a delivery, report a fault and contact your hosts. So far so good.

However, JiLL,is actually a robot – and could well be Australia’s first fully automated front office face.

Chris Hunt, Managing Director, Integrated Facilities Management, Australasia, says that there are capabilities for JiLL to do much more than the basic tasks programmed into it. However, “we wanted to think big but start small,” he says.

JiLL, who stands at 57cm tall and has inbuilt facial recognition software that helps it recognize regular employees, has been programmed to carry out basic administrative tasks, such as meeting and greeting guests and providing directions.

It’s part of a pilot to see how automation can assist office workflows, and how employees and customers respond to working with robots. And it’s just one among a growing number of robotic office staff.

In June, a robot created by the University of Birmingham named Betty completed a two month trial as a trainee office manager at the Transport Systems Catapult in Milton Keynes, the UK. It performed a wide range of tasks including greeting customers, gathering data on working outside office hours, clutter on desks and checking the office temperature and humidity levels.

Meanwhile, over in Taiwan, Pepper is working for two banks and an insurance company. It is programmed to flatter by meeting and greeting clients and guessing their ages far below what they are in real life. The Mandarin-speaking robot can even close a sale by directing customers to staff and the website.

The employee of the future

Nearly five million white-collar office and administration jobs are estimated to be taken over by robots by 2020, and in many cases they will be working alongside human colleagues.

However, Hunt believes that it may take a while for humans to warm up to the idea of sharing their work space with robots.

“We believe that humans have got to learn to work with robots as much as robots have got to learn to work with humans,” Hunt says, “We don’t think that right now customers or employees are ready for an entirely robotic interaction.”

But humans need to get used to it as technology such as Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri evolves beyond merely responding to basic questions and helping with straightforward tasks. Cortana, for example, is soon to be updated to provide people with health insights based on information from third party sources such as Microsoft Health.

It’s all part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that the World Economic Forum says “is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres”.

Using robots to augment the human workforce

While Hunt admits that JiLL is still a bit of a novelty, he anticipates far-reaching changes in the future of the workplace and certainly sees a role for robots.

“We think that we can augment the current human force with a robot. For example, I can put JiLL on duty from 7.30 in the morning until 7.30 in the evening. I can’t do that with an individual,” he says.

He also argues that robots can make huge gains in areas as diverse as after-hours security, which has been traditionally heavily foot-dependent, or tasks that require scanning, QR coding or facial recognition.

Hunt himself is reluctant to call JiLL a ‘robot receptionist’ given the semantics around the fields of automation, artificial intelligence, and the interface between humans and their mobile devices. But he is keenly interested in how customers will respond to JiLL.

Indeed, as robots move from being novelty objects into mainstream use, their role in our everyday life will be one of the big topics to be debated in years to come.