Robots the next step in consumer leisure
In the wake of the Singles Day mania on Nov 11, Chinese consumer health has never been stronger. Alibaba alone reached a record-breaking $30.8 billion in e-commerce revenue in the 24-hour shopping event, prompting the question of how industries can continue to please market tastes that are increasingly sophisticated.
The pursuit of ideal living is nothing new for consumers, however. In the West, millennials and tech-savvy aspirational families over the decades have demonstrated the urge to obtain the newest and shiniest products and services. The largest flat-screen TV, smartest fridge or voiceactivated artificial intelligence assistant have all been different points of the same race in pursuit of the perfect life.
In China, the same pattern is starting to occur, with the fastest-growing middle class in the world showing a hunger for the latest technology to bless them with a life of ease and perhaps luxury, both inside and outside the house. Consumption of luxury goods and high-class service interactions in the East are at an all-time high, and this demand has spurred innovation to satisfy the masses.
Companies such as Alibaba are rising to this challenge. At the “Ideal Living” expo earlier this year, Alibaba, in conjunction with Shanghai tech startup Ratio, revealed a robotic arm capable of making drinks for customers visiting the hotels and restaurants of the future, without the aid of a human bartender. The robotic arm, surprisingly dexterous, is capable of filling the role of a mixologist or barista, creating classy alcohol and coffee drinks with human-like precision.
The robot at the expo effortlessly produced a litchi cocktail for Alibaba co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma and a latte for Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang, awing journalists attending the event, who were keen to be next in line to try out the drinks. Consumers in the future will be able to customize their drinks via their smartphone and allow the robot’s AI system to precisely measure the percentage of alcohol or caffeine in each drink.
The boundaries between science fiction and middle-class living in China are increasingly blurred, and at a faster rate than one might expect. Robotic butlers that can bring anything from room service food and toothpaste to spare razors to your hotel room are already operating across China, albeit in a few forward-thinking establishments. At the InterContinental Hotel in Nantong, Jiangsu province, these robots even have names such as “Little I” and “Little C”.
The AI algorithms and 3D sensors required to make this happen are no easy feat. Jumps in these Chinese industries and healthy investment have enabled such robots to navigate hotels and take unmanned elevators to their destinations, as well as make phone calls to guests or knock on the door.
The sophistication of these anthropomorphized robots is spreading across the rest of Asia, too. In the Hotel Jen Tanglin Singapore, such robot butlers have names such as Jena and Jamie, and are dressed in sleek pink and turquoise tuxedos. They are smart and slick service providers, which also have no requirement to tip (although if you wish to, the robots are equipped with a range of cashless payment options).
“They are more than just gadgets of novelty, but rather reliable resources that are both fun and entertaining for guests”, says Wouter de Graaf, the general manager of Sofitel Singapore, which also owns a fleet of silver servants.
The ambition for technology to create such services beyond life’s necessities is testament to the effects of innovation in every part of our lives. Such innovation plays a vital role in upgrading the entire way that 1.38 billion people live and, perhaps more important, the way they enjoy that life. Whether it be robot baristas or butlers or any other type of technology, the growing Chinese market demands that day-today moments be made easier and more pleasant. Given the nation’s work ethic, it may be about time that the masses were able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.