In Pizza Hut Asian Restaurants, A MasterCard Robot Takes Orders And Payments—With An Attitude

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An interesting MasterCard experiment is going on now at some Pizza Hut restaurants in Asia, where life-size robots take orders and process payments, with the intent of letting more store associates perform more involved customer tasks. (If you’ll recall, that was the same argument made for early self-checkout systems.) But what makes this effort different is that these robots are designed to sense emotions and to react accordingly.

Beyond the obvious questions—such as “Is the world ready for empathetic creatures trying to sell you stuffed crust toasted s’mores cookie pizzas?”—there are the implications of emotion-detecting robots named Pepper. (“The name Pepper was chosen because it is a word that is easy to say and understand across many languages and cultures,” MasterCard said.) In this deployment, they are named Pepper. The company making these robots, SoftBank Robotics, has created a series of videos depicting their potential. The main video (in Japanese) is worth watching, but be prepared for some serious weirding-out, if my teen daughter will permit me to use that phrase.

The robots will be installed in “between six and ten stores in Asia this year,” said John Sheldon, Global SVP, Innovation Management, MasterCard Labs.

It has some serious potential, though. A robot with a child-like face that detects and reacts to emotions might indeed be able to diffuse many a difficult retail situation. (Note: The robot should go through several more iterations before anyone tries to deploy them in the Bronx.)

First, let’s look at the payments part, which is quite straight-forward. The heavy-lifting of the payment part is handled by the MasterPass wallet and the trick is getting the MasterPass wallet to talk with the emotional robot. As MasterCard has it set up, it can complete that connection in two different ways: either by the customer’s mobile phone scanning a QR code that is on the robot’s screen; or through BLE and proximity detection so that the customer can select the robot from within the mobile wallet.

“After pairing with MasterPass, Pepper will be able to assist cardholders by providing personalized recommendations and offers, additional information on products, and assistance in checking out and paying for items. Pepper will be able to initiate, approve and complete a transaction by connecting to MasterPass via a Wi-Fi connection and the entire transaction happens within the wallet,” MasterCard said.

It should also be noted that these are not especially high-cost empathetic robots. In Japan, the company is offering a consumer version (“Base price $1800 + $225/36 mo, basic plan + insurance pack”), a business version (“$500/month for 36 months = $18,000”) and a developer model (“Base price $1800 + $196/36 mo OR $8,850 over three years”).

The robots, which can speak 19 languages, “add more intelligence to kiosk ordering. This is an experiment. We are going to learn how to do it better,” MasterCard’s Sheldon said. “Pepper guides you through the process of placing the order and can answer nutritional questions and communicate any specials. Then we pass the token back to Pepper to indicate that the payment was made.”

But what about those emotion-detections? The robots “are intentionally designed to convey emotion” and it uses sensors and cameras “to interpret the emotional state of the person they are interacting with and the cameras that it’s using are evaluating the behavior.” In what way? If the customer is excited and animated, so, too, would be Pepper. If the customer’s movements “are more muted, then it would instead respond with a lot calmer and smaller gestures, so as to put that person at ease.”

If I ran into a robot at a pizza joint and it started mimicking me to my face, not so sure that “at ease” would be the best way to describe how I’d feel.

Sheldon made that point, by saying that if a customer is truly agitated, it’s program would alert an employee to get involved. “In a high-frustration environment, it would probably refer to a human,” Sheldon said.

A nice extra: if the customer gives permission, the robot can integrate a customer’s order history into the script. If that customer typically orders a bacon-stuffed-crust pizza with pepperoni—doctor’s orders notwithstanding—the robot could immediately ask the customer if that is what she wants this time.

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