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The rise of humanoid robotics in the Middle East

Middle East CIOs are planning to roll out intelligent automation technologies such as artificial intelligence and humanoid robotics

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Middle East: CW Middle East: Middle East warms to humanoid robots

Countries in the Middle East are warming to humanoid robotics, robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) as these technologies become widely accepted globally.

Although the Middle East is a hotbed for adoption of smart technology, it is still early days for adoption of humanoid robotics, RPA and AI.

However, there has been a surge in usage cases for business, especially with humanoid robotics. Organisations in the government, security (police and defence), banking, energy and utilities, manufacturing, healthcare, hospitality, retail and education sectors have been piloting or adopting humanoid robotics into their existing IT systems to enhance the customer experience.

Recent research by PwC Middle East estimated that the AI market in the Middle East could be worth $320bn by 2030.

Nicolas Boudot, Emea sales director at SoftBank Robotics Europe, said the Middle East has become the latest market for the company’s socio-humanoid robot, known as Pepper, which was available in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) even before the company rolled it out in China and the US.

Pepper is a humanoid robot designed by SoftBank to be used in environments where an organisation deals with the general public, such as in retail to welcome customers, provide product recommendations, get feedback or analyse customer buying patterns.

“One of the key challenges that retailers in the Middle East are facing today is bridging the gap between what is happening online and what is in the store,” said Boudot. “Providing a seamless omni-channel experience to customers is a key concern with the digitalisation that is happening, and that is what Pepper, as a humanoid, is enabling them to do.”

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Boudot said when Pepper is connected securely to existing IT systems, it has access to customers’ profiles and purchasing history. “Pepper knows whether it is dealing with a man or woman without necessarily knowing personal information or whether a customer has a loyalty card,” he said. “It will provide you with a recommendation for a retail demo or specials happening in the store.

“If you go online, you will get the same type of behaviour. For example, like an online recommendation, Pepper knows the type of shoes the customer likes wearing and would be able to tell them if there are any special deals running.”

Boudot said SoftBank started marketing humanoid robotics three years ago and has sold 10,000 robots, mostly in Japan and Europe.

Ashish Panjabi, COO at UAE-based Jacky’s Business Solutions – a SoftBank partner – said Pepper can be used for verticals such as retail, healthcare, hospitality, government, tourism and utilities.

“Pepper, for us, is a product and now it is a question of building a platform on top of the product,” said Panjabi. “We will be working with the developer community in the region. We feel there is a lot of need for this technology, and a lot can be developed locally to make the humanoid robotic experience a lot better.”

In the UAE, Pepper is being used by the Emirates NBD banking group and the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) for customer services.

Financial services lead the charge

In the Middle East, as in many regions of the world, financial services companies are leading the charge in adoption of humanoid robotics, RPA and AI technology to automate business processes and customer services.

With the region having one of the world’s highest mobile penetration rates, customers are increasingly moving to mobile banking channels, a trend that will only accelerate as younger generations get bank accounts.

Because of this, banks in the Middle East are rapidly automating services using AI and technologies such as voice and facial recognition.

Suvo Sarkar, senior executive vice-president and group head of retail banking and wealth management at Emirates NBD, said the bank, as an early adopter of new technology, was the first in the UAE to bring in Pepper to cater for its English and Arabic-speaking customers.

“We first introduced Pepper at our futuristic banking space in the Jumeirah Emirates Towers branch in 2016,” he said.

Sarkar said Pepper was first introduced at the bank’s Jumeirah Emirates Towers and Dubai Mall branches to issue branch queuing tokens, present information about products and services and obtain customer feedback through a happiness meter, and the bank has since deployed a number of humanoid robots at other branches around the country.

The value of a humanoid robot is the kind of relationship it builds with humans by interacting face to face, using speech and voice recognition.

In the utilities sector, DEWA unveiled its Future Centre for Customer Happiness at Ibn Battuta Mall in 2017, the first integrated smart customer service centre in Dubai, which uses AI and robotics to provide services to customers.

Government of the future

Saeed Mohammad Al Tayer,  CEO at DEWA, said the centre represents a practical translation of the UAE’s objectives to build the government of the future.

“DEWA is keen to implement the objectives of the Dubai 10X initiative, launched by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the UAE, to propel Dubai towards the future, making it 10 years ahead of other cities of the world, through government innovation,” he said.

Al Tayer said DEWA plans to use the latest technologies to serve society, in line with the Dubai Plan 2021 to make Dubai a smart, integrated and connected city that uses sustainable resources.

“DEWA has succeeded in raising customers’ awareness about its smart services, which enable people to complete their transactions easily and securely any time, anywhere, using DEWA’s smart app or website, without having to visit customer happiness centres. This saves them time,” he said.

But although humanoid robotics is making progress in the Middle East, there are challenges in moving RPA and AI projects forward.

Saravanan Kumar, global head of automation at financial services firm Aon, said the challenges the company is seeing involve people. “If people leave, or an outsourced vendor changes, then a lot of time and effort is wasted,” he said.

RPA as a platform

Kumar said Aon is trying to offer RPA as a platform. “Our definition of a platform is centralised, intuitive and capable, so that users can start innovating off the platform,” he said. “We want to centralise all kinds of capabilities. It could be for finance, it could be for IT operations, it could be for front office or back office.”

Aon Middle East wants to “Uber-ise” the RPA platform, said Kumar. “If you look at Uber, it doesn’t have a fleet of cars, but it has a technology platform that brings together the person with the car and the person who needs a car,” he added.

Kumar said the entire RPA programme will take three years to complete. “All these programmes must simplify, optimise, and then automate,” he said.

“I am a strong believer that if you automate garbage, you only automate inefficiencies. Unless you clean it up and do the right thing, you are not going to get the desired results.”

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