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Editor's pick Retail technology

JD.com on a future where robots replace humans

Richard Liu, CEO, JD.com
Richard Liu, CEO, JD.com

“Sooner or later, our entire industry will be operated by AI and robots, not humans,” said JD.com’s CEO, Richard Liu, at the World Retail Conference in Madrid this week.

Speaking to a large audience of retail professionals, the head of China’s second-largest e-commerce company (behind the Alibaba Group), highlighted the fact he believes the future of retail is all about automation.

The Asia region is known to heavily invest in technologies that enable more personalized, seamless, and often self-directed retail experiences, as we recently highlighted on the site, making this a more natural leap for such businesses, but Liu’s views were not met by everyone worldwide.

Mango chairman Daniel Lopez disagreed on the idea of automation as inevitable, saying that humans are sociable at the core, so stores should strive to provide that element. “This is part of the experience that consumers are looking for, and by all means we shouldn’t lose that human touch,” he said. Mango has always had ‘experience’ as a central part of its DNA as a result, he explained.

In another conversation, John Lewis’ group development director, Tom Athron, delivered a warning on the same note: “Walk away from the power of the human at your peril. To assume consumers want everything to be automated or screen-based is naive, they want that in some ways, but I have a belief that humans and machines together will always be better than humans on their own, or machines on their own.”

Athron agreed, however, that some automation is necessary when labor is a retailer’s biggest cost. As the industry and technology evolves, it’s inevitable computers will be able to perform certain jobs more efficiently, he explained, making it essential to shift accordingly to an extent in order to remain competitive.

Véronique Laury, CEO of Kingfisher, which owns companies such as UK DIY retailer B&Q, says that the only benefit a physical store will have in the future is to provide emotion-led experiences, which are more often than not facilitated by humans. “That emotional connection is not completely fulfilled through digital techniques or technology. The human being side of talking to someone who understands what you are going through will be really important even in the future,” she said as she likewise dismissed the idea of purely automated or robotic-led stores.

Beyond experience, convenience and frictionless shopping was also a central theme of the conversation at the event. JD.com’s Liu also spoke about how the company is always finding opportunities to invest in logistics capabilities to serve the Chinese consumer’s evolving expectations around speed, for instance.

JD.com’s delivery service currently covers 100% of China and offers next day delivery to 90% of its 252 million customers. Liu’s goal for the next few years is to have a convenience store in every Chinese village, and the retailer is currently deploying drone technology to source and supply more remote locations until it reaches that milestone.

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technology

Robots: Tantalising or tacky, they’re in a store near you and set to change the world

robots
Robot maids help wealthy Chinese shopper

The ultimate in robot bling took place in Guangzhou, China recently, where an unnamed “tycoon” went on a shopping trip accompanied by a coterie of robotic servants.

The robots carried our unnamed shopper’s carrier bags, his coat, his water bottle (but probably not his wallet), as he strolled in and out of jewellery stores and other luxury shops.

Yes, it looked incredibly tacky and the reaction on Chinese social media was pretty negative. Plus there’s the sexist element – note that these robots for some reason seem to have a gender (female of course with many reports referring to them as “robot maids”). But beyond all that, it does also say something about the future of retail – and that future will be (at least partially) robotic.

Having been at the Millennial 20/20 conference in London last week and getting an up-close look at super-cute robot, Pepper, it hit me just how far robotics have come.

Forward-looking retailers like Amazon have already invested in robotics. The e-tail giant has around 30,000 non-cute functional robots performing tasks (like lifting and shifting goods) in its warehouses alongside human employees.

Amazon’s robots look like machines, and we aren’t meant to relate to them in any other way. Hitachi though is developing a humanoid robot that can work in-store, can approach customers who look like they need help and give them limited guidance. Assumedly that means phrases like “we close at 8pm” rather than “that dress looks great on you but would be better in blue and how about this delightful necklace to go with it” (that really would be scary).

hitachi
Hitachi’s EMIEW3

The Hitachi robot, as above, is called EMIEW3 (EMIEW launched way back in 2005). It has a remote brain connected to cloud-based intelligent processing systems. It can communicate with other robots and can stand up again if it’s knocked over.

While there are fears that mass adoption of robots will take jobs from people, the view from the inside at the moment is that people and robots are complementary and real humans are needed to do the more sophisticated thinking and perform the more detailed tasks that robots can’t.

Of course, as robot tech improves, that’s when the ethical issues will come in. How tempting will it be for a company to ‘employ’ more advanced and capable robots rather than those pesky humans? And as robots become more human-like, when will our telling them things to do, border on slavery?

They may seem extreme questions to ask today, but they’re questions we’ll have to answer in the lifetime of most people reading this piece, take my word for it.

This post first appeared on Trendwalk.net, a style-meets-business blog by journalist, trends specialist and business analyst, Sandra Halliday

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Editor's pick film technology

Virtual reality and robots head for Stockholm in latest fashion week technology integration

IdaKlamborn

Virtual reality is the latest plaything of the fashion set, with designers from Tommy Hilfiger to Dior, Rebecca Minkoff and Jean-Pierre Braganza all experimenting with it.

Now, it’s Swedish designer Ida Klamborn’s turn. Where most of her contemporaries have taken VR and applied it as an immersive film experience shot during fashion week and delivered a few months later in time with their collection hitting the shop floor, Klamborn is offering up a real-time initiative live from her front row. Read the full story, including detail of where the robots come in, via Forbes.