Analysis | Rise of the machines: Robots join automation in smart city push

Smart city, artificial intelligence and big data have been buzzwords in Macau for the past few years, but now robots are joining the fold.

This week saw the launch of two new robots. Not autonomous vehicles, drones, or household communications systems – but retro sci-fi-looking customer service agents that will deployed for tourists and public utility costumers looking to acquire information or pay their bills.

Their introduction is being heralded as the beginning of Macau’s transformation into a smart city of the future that utilizes technology in its day-to-day life.

This week saw the launch of “Singou Butler 1” [below], a tourism services robot that can reply to visitors’ questions, suggest activities and places to visit and offer other relevant information.

At its demonstration on Wednesday, Singou Butler 1 proved capable of understanding and replying to questions in Cantonese. According to Macau Government Tourism Office chief Helena de Senna Fernandes, it will soon be able to understand Mandarin and English too.

The company responsible for developing Singou Butler 1 intends to launch with a total of 12 robots in the first phase, to be deployed next year in controlled environments such as tourism information centers. It will also develop ‘chatbots’ capable of answering tourist enquiries.

At the same time, public utilities company Macao Water this week unveiled its latest AI customer service robot, dubbed “AI Customer Service Agent” [right], which will offer similar functionality to Singou Butler 1.

In addition to having a more human-like appearance than Singou Butler 1’s stacked-box appearance, the creators of AI Customer Service Agent also claim it is able to dance and take pictures. The robot will enhance customer experiences by providing high quality customer services, the company said.

The new robots are unlikely to revolutionize customer services, nor are they expected to phase out jobs in the sector. They appear to be more of a gimmick than anything else, and whether they will actually prove a convenience to customers will depend on the functionality and intelligence of their deployed models.

Another problem is that customers like speaking with human service agents. Recent surveys in the U.S. showed that an overwhelming 94 percent of consumers said they prefer live customer service agents over machines, even if it means waiting a little longer. At the same time, fewer than 10 percent said they trust virtual agents to answer questions and resolve problems adequately.

On the other hand, the new robots do represent an investment into the development of Macau into a smart city and allow the MSAR to expand its service capacity without pressing up against the problem of manpower shortages. The announcements made this week are not breakthroughs, but they are a step toward an inevitable future characterized by automation.

The key question is whether robots, artificial intelligence and automation will be extended into other areas of the city’s economy, such as the retail and hospitality sectors, as well as transportation and gaming. Few improvements have been reported since the idea of developing Macau into a smart city was first touted in 2016.

In terms of transportation, the Macau government has already confirmed that the Light Rapid Transit (LRT) project will operate fully automated (driverless) trains.

The local government has also been pushing for development and implementation of e-government services to provide better services to residents, and allow for the quicker sorting and extraction of data. However, a report from the Commission of Audit earlier this year assessed the development of e-government as both slow and inefficient, and found that between 2001 and 2016, the conclusion rate for such projects was just 64 percent.

In terms of gaming, Secretary for Economy and Finance Lionel Leong on Wednesday shot down a proposal from the Council for Economic Development to lift the ban of the hiring of non-local croupiers. Neither party mentioned a possible alternative in robot croupiers.

The idea is not new. Casino analysts have speculated for years that Macau might be fertile ground for the introduction of human-
like machine croupiers that cut labor costs and potentially open up new markets, but the idea has failed to find a foothold in the world’s largest gaming market.


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