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SXSW

Robots May Someday Engage Male Shoppers Who Shy Away From In-Store Interactions

Among other bionic-minded applications

Hiroshi Ishiguro delighted a few hundred SXSW goers with his robots speech. Getty Images

Robots can help sell clothes to men, give language learners an enthusiastic partner to practice talking with, and get millennials and Gen Y kids to partake in traditional activities that only moms and dads are supposed to enjoy. That's all according to Hiroshi Ishiguro, professor at Osaka University, who was speaking about human-like androids at South by Southwest Interactive on Sunday.

"They can have those types of conversations," he said in front of a few hundred attendees at the Austin Convention Center in Texas' capital city. 

Ishiguro's university laboratory team has tested robots in various real-life situations in his home country of Japan, including a retail scenario in the men's section at a department store.

"Japanese males hate to talk to the shopkeeper because it signals they want to buy something," he explained. "But they don't hesitate to talk to the android."

He then jokingly added that it helps that a "robot never tells a lie, and that is why the android can sell lots of clothes."

It's very early days for the retail robot—even in Japan, which seems to be on the cutting edge of nearly all things bionic. At the same time, Ishiguro suggested that the home computer and the ubiquity of smartphones have set the stage for more futuristic applications ahead, including personal robots. He said "within three or four years, we can have the scene" where conversing with robot won't seem so unusual.

When considering people became accustomed to a winking paperclip with Microsoft's Office Assistant more than a decade ago and that voice recognition systems like Apple's Siri have gone mainstream, Ishiguro may be right. And all such robots, of course, will be marketed and sold. 

Another use case—among several that he mentioned—that may provoke marketers' interests include a robot developed a few years ago to archive the humorous spirit of legendary Japanese comedian Beicho Katsura II (who passed away after getting to see the robot himself). Ishiguro said young people in Japan were drawn to the comedian's work after watching the android, suggesting that such bionic displays may provide an avenue to teens and young adult consumers' imaginations.

"[The comedian's work] was something traditional that they wouldn't have been otherwise interested in," he said.

Also, since so many Japanese study English but have trouble finding someone to practice speaking with, he said, a robot is a natural companion to overcome such an obstacle.

"Some people study eight or nine years and can write and read English perfectly but cannot speak it," Ishiguro said. He told Adweek after his talk that he expects such an application to become common in the future.

Additionally, he mentioned robots' potential in terms of restaurant singers or merchant mannequins.

"They never get tired and never go to the toilet—or at least I assume," Ishiguro quipped.

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