Humans are emotional beings. And our senses are the triggers that produce our emotional responses. Everyone remembers a time when a scent has taken them back to a nostalgic memory and the feelings of happiness, sadness, or joy that then followed. Emotion is the fuel by which we operate; it’s the perpetual driver of our behaviours and decision-making processes, so at retail, it would make sense that emotion is also the currency by which we purchase- whether we realise it or not.

And as emotionally-driven, experience-seeking humans, we have an inherent need for social interaction. We crave real-life connection, with real-life people. It is for these reasons that I, for one, refuse to subscribe to the rumoured death of the physical store.

So where does Artificial Intelligence fit into this?

AI has become somewhat of a buzzword of late, and whilst still in it’s infancy, the conversation about whether robots will take our jobs is a hotly discussed topic. You only have to take a look at sites like Will Robots Take my Job to get the very latest evaluation on the likelihood of your job even existing in the future (clickbait genius).

Will robots take my job website

We all like to jump on the bandwagon of new tech in a scramble to remain relevant. And with a new year, comes another new wave of technological advances to keep up with, that ten years ago we would never have imagined possible: Alexa is being programmed to have her own opinion (apparently her favourite beer is Budweiser, who knew!), soft robotics will have their own artificial muscles- capable of lifting 1000 times their own weight- and the invention of a biochip that gives machines their own sense of smell and taste is also apparently on the horizon. It’s not difficult to see why Stephen Hawking said in October of 2016, “the rise of powerful AI will be either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which.”

Another more specific vein of AI, is being coined ‘Emotional Intelligence’, such as Emotibot and the new AI retail assistant ‘Sue’- revealed at CES 2018. She’s capable of identifying and understanding 22 different emotional states by analysing facial expressions and voice emotion. The human benefits being she’s able to provide a tailored service that a – mere mortal – retail assistant couldn’t; quickly recommending products based on demographics, offering a vast knowledge of information and words of guidance, and even decision-making support when she recognises that the shopper is feeling uneasy. Apparently, it will provide a level of intelligence to retail that by far amplifies human intelligence, making the experience an easier one. Is this how Emotional Intelligence should be used? We certainly champion the idea that technology should be about enhancing lives by making things pain-free and effortless, giving us more time to do the things that matter.

The thing is, Emotional Intelligence proposes a dilemma. As humans can we really relate to robotics? Feel that genuine connection when face to face with another living breathing person? Currently, AI’s recognition of our emotions is an unrequited relationship as they are unable to experience and understand feelings of their own, but could they in the future?

If machine-made senses and opinionated robotics like Alexa are anything to go by, and we are able to teach them how to react to certain situations based on these new-found senses, I wouldn’t rule it out. Humanoid robots have been developing since the 90s, and so emotionally-fuelled AI may be a reality that’s frighteningly closer than we realise.

Uncanny Valley diagram

In terms of our relationship to robots, we’re currently firmly sat in ‘Uncanny Valley’- the hypothesis that the closer a humanoid resembles a genuine human, the more the observer’s response becomes repulsed. LG’s Head of Research for Life Robots Jaewon Chang told a reporter at CES, “There are still psychological barriers in using voice recognition and also following robots around for directions…they feel this awkwardness and some degree of hesitation.” Imagine then that hesitation- that paradox of unfamiliar, yet strangely similar- that feeling of unease that might present itself when face-to-face with a life-like humanoid in the future. This is where we feel Emotional Intelligence will fall down; when it reaches a point in the future at which it’s designed to replace the authenticity of human existence.

LG robots


So is it robot vs. human? Will it be a battle against the rise of the machines? It shouldn’t have to be. Sam Olsen, Director at SI Partners explains that “the rise of machines doesn’t mean humans are suddenly redundant…it’s all about intelligence amplification and an effective use of information technology in augmenting human intelligence.” The relationship should be a harmonious one, raising the other up where needed.

We asked industry experts Maureen Hinton, Group Research Director of GlobalData Retail and Wilf Walsh, CEO of Carpetright about the role thay they believe AI will play in the future.

Artificial Intelligence, specifically Emotional Intelligence, will have a very useful role where it offers learnings that humans and previous technologies couldn’t, where it can enhance our lives by saving us time to experience the things we love. However, it should never replace honest, authentic, real-life human experiences that fulfil us on an emotional level.

As a human-centred design consultancy, we’re all about putting humans first, and tech second. Always have, always will. It’s the way of the world, right? “Humanity’s days are numbered and AI will cause mass extinction” was the headline of one Stephen Hawking’s recent interviews – not if we have anything to do with it!


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