Skip to contentSkip to navigation

The cyborg behind the sales counter

Equipping employees with wearable or implantable AI devices may improve efficiency, but firms must weigh ethical concerns and prepare customers for the new experience.

The 2015 opening of the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki, Japan, was staffed almost entirely by 243 robots, hailed as a milestone in bringing artificial intelligence (AI) to customer service. What a disappointment, then, when a few years later, the hotel laid off more than half of those robot workers and hired humans in part because customers found the robots annoying, unreliable, and off-putting. It’s a result that the authors of a new study on human enhancement technology (HET) might have predicted.

Even before COVID forced businesses to think about how to serve customers in a safe, contact-free way, firms were turning to AI to streamline and enhance service. There are increasingly humanlike robots who sell coffee, wait tables, and work as hotel bellhops at trial locations around the world. But more frequently, rather than going full robot, employees are equipped with HET devices. It’s not unusual for doctors to wear smart glasses that stream patient data during appointments, for example, or for car rental service representatives to don headsets for faster communication with AI virtual agents or bots about vehicle availability. Similarly, research is underway on how bionic lenses could aid logistics workers, and how wearable monitors could provide real-time feedback about employees’ changing stress levels or underlying health conditions. There are even emotion-detecting devices in the works that could sense prospective customers’ moods.

In the not-too-distant future (some predict within 10 years), frontline employees might commonly be cyborgs: people who are augmented with wearable or implanted devices that enhance their abilities. But customers may be put off not only because they long for personal interaction, but because they worry about the ethical considerations of equipping humans with AI tools. The question is: How can companies integrate cutting-edge tech into busy service contexts without turning off customers?

To answer this question, the authors of this new paper on cyborgs surveyed the emerging literature and reviewed recent experimental studies on the pros and cons of frontline AI-enhanced service staff. The lure of cutting costs and increasing efficiency is likely to lead to AI being applied in more and more service contexts. The authors, however, warn that firms must be careful about how they introduce cyborgs lest they scare off customers or clients with impersonal employee “superheroes.” And they must keep ethical and privacy concerns at the forefront of their thinking.

Going too far

Indeed, research has shown that the keys to successful sales transactions are employee warmth (being helpful, caring, or trustworthy) and competence (being intelligent, skillful, or efficient). The challenge with cyborgs, then, is not to dehumanize the employee by using technology that turns the service encounter into a cold, gadget-y experience.

Firms must be careful about how they introduce cyborgs lest they scare off customers or clients with impersonal employee ‘superheroes.’

The authors cite several studies that suggest people are willing to accept the use of HET if it endows relatively attainable capabilities, such as 20/20 eyesight, or restores full use of an injured body part or impaired function. People become uncomfortable when HET leads to extraordinary levels of perception (e.g., seeing for miles or through things), involves gene editing to make people smarter or more attractive, or gifts them conspicuous levels of speed or stamina. The authors advise that firms be mindful of this distinction.

And then there’s the problem of overconfidence. Employees augmented with HET might take on too many risks, and inadvertently increase the number of service mistakes. Customers who perceive cyborgs as superhuman might be less forgiving of these errors than they would be if a regular person was making them.

For these reasons, companies should consider introducing HET in the latter stages of a service encounter, only after the customer and service representative have established a rapport and trust. HET could be most effective after a purchase decision has been made.

Do no evil

These are mostly technical issues about performance and perception. The thorniest concerns, however, by far, involve ethics. There is currently no legislative or regulatory framework to guide companies, so any consideration of cyborg employees must begin with the ethical issues involved, including privacy, health, and human rights concerns.

For this reason, the authors stress, the use of HET must be transparent in every sense: Customers should be aware of the information cyborgs are accessing, and the technology itself should be visible during a service encounter. Although firms may be tempted to hide the technology as a way of normalizing the customer’s experience, studies have shown that people respond more positively to new technology when they can see it. For example, employees who wear smart glasses to screen a customer’s face and retrieve real-time data represent a clear privacy concern if goals and motives are not explained.

Any adoption of HET, the authors write, “must be accompanied by investments in data security and privacy promotion practices to avoid negative consumer backlash” and comply with all regulations on data collecting, storage, and usage. These precautions will limit employees misusing HET. And the temptations for misuse could be immense. What will people be capable of, for example, within or outside of the workplace, if they gain physical, cognitive, or emotional boosts from wearable or implantable devices? The authors suggest firms develop clear guidelines and support systems for employees using HET, as part of broader policies governing corporate digital responsibility.

Despite the challenges associated with introducing HET in a service context, the potential of cyborg technologies is vast: bionic limbs or exoskeletons could assist workers with lifting heavy loads; AI-enabled driving could assist travelers; and augmented hearing monitors could enable salespeople to cut background noise and better focus on customers. The world is clearly headed in this direction, enticed by the promise of efficiency gains, cost savings, and improved customer service. The challenge for companies, when they can achieve those objectives, is to respect consumer privacy and retain the personal touch.

Source: “Frontline Cyborgs at Your Service: How Human Enhancement Technologies Affect Customer Experiences in Retail, Sales, and Service Settings,” Dhruv Grewal (Babson College), Mirja Kroschke (University of Muenster), Martin Mende (Florida State University), Anne L. Roggeveen (Babson College), and Maura L. Scott (Florida State University), Journal of Interactive Marketing, Aug. 2020, vol. 51

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.