11 April 2019

Robots in Retail

The interest of business in RPA (robotic process automation) keeps growing. Anton Berentsev, CEO of EleWise and head of IntellectLab shared his ideas on using robots in retail and spoke about the future of this technology in an interview to “Moe Delo.Magazine”. You can find the interview in the January-February issue, and here is the full version of Anton’s replies.

“Moe Delo.Magazine”: People have been fascinated with robots for a long time. However, the progress in this area is rather slow. What do you think is retaining the progress, is it a lack of finances or technologies?

Anton Berentsev: Today robots as in systems that perform human work can be found anywhere, from smartphones to automated warehouse management systems. The trend is to make robots more and more intelligent.

Robots do not necessarily have to be humanlike. More often than not, a robot is a program that does not have a body but is capable of performing certain operations. The benefit of using such intelligent robots is enormous. Robots do not get sick; they can process immense amounts of information and provide precise, efficient and timely solutions.

Of course, we are still at the very beginning of using AI and intelligent robots. Still, our technologies are more than ready for that. You can find successful examples of their application in various industries. The main obstacle in the development of technologies is people. The lack of experts who can create and program such robots is what’s slowing the progress down. The other problem is that it is hard for people to figure out, which tasks can be given to a robot and which should still be done by humans.

“Moe Delo.Magazine”: How much longer will human labor remain cheaper than robots? What could significantly shift the current situation?

Anton Berentsev: Today a lot is expected from AI and robots. There are many jokes about men in robot suits but in fact, AI has already proven to be successful.
For example, take document distribution and routing. There can be many different documents, all requiring different routes and approval activities. Usually, a person is in charge of such work, but AI does it faster and operates 24/7.

The only problem remaining is the cost. Today robots are created and programmed by IT experts and consulting companies, providing specific solutions made by very expensive specialists.
A generic template solution could make a difference so that we could incorporate AI into a process, and it would start working immediately. Sounds fantastic, but it is the only way to significantly reduce costs because specialists who create and configure AI solutions are expensive and their fees will only continue to grow.

“Moe Delo.Magazine”: Are robots and AI the same thing? Will these technologies integrate into one single solution?

Anton Berentsev: There are two ways to look at this. We can read the definitions in a dictionary and see that robots and AI are two different things. Or we can ask the people who are actually planning to use these technologies for their opinion. And they do not care about definitions. They care about tools and solutions that are precise, comprehensible and effective.

“Moe Delo.Magazine”: Do you think it is probable that such technologies as unmanned autonomous trucks and delivery drones will appear and develop in Russia? And if not, why?

Anton Berentsev: I strongly believe that when it comes to engineering our people can go a long way. We can invent and create almost anything. The problem lays in practicability and scalability.
On the one hand, since mathematics is an exact science, the practicability of any robotic or intelligent solution can be calculated. A solution practical in the long run is bound to be implemented by the business.

On the other hand, unmanned trucks and delivery drones require significant changes in the law. This is a totally different factor other than mathematics.
Therefore I’m convinced that robots and AI will be highly sought in offices, warehouses, and manufacturing. These areas only require the solutions to be efficient, no need to change the current rules and legislation.

“Moe Delo.Magazine”: Is it safe for retailers to invest in robots since they can be hacked or influenced remotely?

Anton Berentsev: Retailers store information about their sales, marketing campaigns, contracts and other data on servers. These servers are already at risk of being hacked, and I am sure they are in more danger than robots.

Malware and anti-malware programs are in constant competition. Both sides are using vast resources. I think that the fragile balance that they have reached will stay the same in the future. New viruses and new talented hackers will appear, as well as new protection software and IT security companies.

“Moe Delo.Magazine”: Do you think it is possible that robots will eventually destroy retail since they can deliver goods directly from a warehouse to the customer? Or does this sound unrealistic?

Anton Berentsev: Many people I know love going to the mall. It is a way to spend their free time, a ceremony of sorts. Such people will always need retailers. Sure, online sales are growing fast and will continue to do so. And sure, AI can forecast which product a customer will want to buy at a certain point, and organize its delivery.

Still, we are only human. We are prone to emotions, mood swings and often care about what other people think. We rely on feelings, and we want to touch, test, and try on the things that we are buying. So offline sales are not going anywhere. However, they will move from malls to smaller shops with individual customer service and a wide range of goods.

“Moe Delo.Magazine”: Which factors influence the development of robots today?

Anton Berentsev: The most evident factor is the mass application of AI in a company’s processes. In the same way as AI is now used in smartphone apps and on websites (the ads you see on such websites are chosen specifically for you), intelligent robots will be used in diverse processes giving a colossal synergistic effect. The speed of work will increase significantly, while the costs will reduce, giving new competitive advantages and breaking new grounds.

“Moe Delo.Magazine”: On another note, could you maybe say that retail does not need robots at all?

Anton Berentsev: Some retailers are already using robots. Others can either decide to use them or… shut down their business. You may love steam engines with all your heart, but airplanes use combustion engines. If you want to fly, you will have to go with that.

Also you might like the following articles on RPA, retail, and BPM:

RPA and BPM unified
BPM in retail business. One more step to success
Digitization of Business Processes
5 common BPM myths

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Ekaterina Mokrushina
Marketing Specialist