Last week the Verge ran an article on Honda Motor Co.’s Asimo robot. Asimo is a talking, and supposedly interactive, robot and it recently started a new job as a museum guide. Apparently Asimo failed to impress as it sought to entertain a museum audience and accompanying reporters. Ceiling sensors help the robot detect where crowds are gathering and who is raising their hand to ask a question. But Asimo ran into a problem when guests lifted their smartphones to snap photos. It mistook the gesture as hand raising and responded by blurting out the pre-programmed question “Who wants to ask Asimo a question?”
The awkwardness of the situation was only made worse by the fact that Asimo lacks voice recognition capability. You can’t actually ask Asimo a question. Instead you have to select from a set of pre-existing questions on a touch panel. Responses to the questions are pre-recorded, very much like with a traditional chatbot.
As advanced as Asimo is with many of its physical capabilities, its recent stint as museum guide highlighted apparent shortcomings. Asimo is obviously not a conversational robot. It does seem a bit odd that, considering how far voice recognition and virtual agent / dialog technologies have come in the past few years, Asimo’s product managers couldn’t have upgraded the robot with true conversational capabilities.
The lackluster response to Asimo’s performance also highlights how far our expectations have come with regard to non-human conversational partners. Being so accustomed to smartphone apps that understand us, we naturally expect smart-looking robots to know what we’re saying. If you’re responsible for customer engagement or support at your company, the pressure is on. Consumers have been conditioned to expect a lot from the technologies that seek to replace human support agents. We shouldn’t be lulled into believing that we can replace a live person with a pre-programmed, non-responsive chatbot and not have customers revolt. If a robot, a virtual agent, or any other technology is supposed to be serving us, we expect to be understood. “Who wants to ask a question?” is not going to cut it.