The robot takeover of Seoul, and a new era of technology

by Chaiwoo Lee

As COVID-19-related travel restrictions started to lift, I was finally able to visit Seoul to see my parents and many of my old friends after a 3-year break. The trip, as always, was disorienting. After spending a few hours at Logan Airport, being in the air for 15.5 hours with a sleepless toddler, and taking an hourlong taxi ride to our hotel in Seoul, my husband and I were dire need of some strong iced coffee. We got inside a coffee shop, grabbed a table to settle down, then tried to find an order counter. There wasn’t one to be found, and in my travel-induced haze, I began to question my sanity.

Rescuing us in our confusion, a staff member pointed at a kiosk that was outside the entrance to the coffeeshop. We needed to go back outside to place our order.

For the next three weeks in Seoul, we encountered this setup at many other coffee shops and restaurants. Kiosks and tablets asked us what items we wanted and demanded for us to swipe our credit cards quickly—the machines counted down the seconds to spur us to act decisively. At some cafes, robot arms served us coffee and other drinks.

Then, near the beginning of our journey back to the U.S., we were greeted by a robot as we entered the post-security area at Incheon Airport. This luggage-carrying robot was slowly and autonomously roaming around the exit of the security area designated for passengers with disability and special needs and families with small children. The robot’s body was outfitted with a large tray that could hold a few suitcases. It also seemed that the robot could scan a boarding pass and move alongside a passenger to their departure gate or other destinations within the airport.

Inside the terminal, we stopped at an airline lounge to have breakfast. What we spotted here was something we weren’t even surprised to see at this point—another robot. This one had plastic bins attached to its body for people to drop used dishes, cups and utensils as it moved around the space.

This preponderance of technology in Seoul was all new to me, and it left me with a few questions.

First, with various tasks being automated or otherwise carried out by machines, are we moving toward the removal of human interactions in service settings? The use of technology in such settings may improve convenience and efficiency, but these benefits may come with sacrificing the fulfillment of other important social and emotional needs and desires. While a key function of coffee shops and restaurants is to provide food and beverages, they also serve as spaces for social engagement and leisure. Our recent research on impacts of artificial intelligence (AI) found that while AI is becoming more commonplace and deeply integrated into our lives, people strongly prefer to encounter a more traditional or humanlike interface even when dealing with automated systems. I am doubtful that many people want a future where coffee shops get reduced to advanced vending machines.

Another question I had arose from my being overwhelmed with these new technological interactions. My experiences with these automated services felt awkward and unnatural, and I felt rushed to find and process information quickly. If I—a Millennial with extensive usage of new technological systems, many years of engineering education, and research background in human-computer interaction—struggled through these encounters with technology, how would someone without the relevant experience and knowledge navigate everything? Is the rapid implementation of new systems leaving out people who may not have the physical dexterity or cognitive capabilities to interact with kiosks without accessibility features? People who may not understand the technical language used in new interfaces? What about older adults? What about people who need additional assistance navigating service environments?

Lastly, these rapid technological changes appeared to be at least partly driven by challenges that came with COVID-19. A series of surveys conducted by the AgeLab in 2020 found that many consumers had adopted new technologies in response to the pandemic. Many respondents reported that they intended to keep using their new pandemic purchases and adoptions, but there were also people who were just trying things out and using new products and services to temporarily meet their needs. On a larger scale, I wonder which aspects of the global digital transformation will prove permanent, and which will be temporary. What factors will determine what stays and what doesn’t?

While at the airport lounge, I saw a staff member manually moving the dish-collecting robot like a push cart when it started roaming areas where nobody was sitting. In many service settings, technologies still need to work with humans. The socioemotional nature of service experiences and the complexities that lie in spatial and environmental design likely mean that we are still far from letting robots take care of everything. But the pandemic has taught us that dramatic changes can happen in just a few years. We are moving toward an increasingly technology-embedded future, and it’s anything but a purely technical transformation.

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About the Author

Photo of Chaiwoo Lee
Chaiwoo Lee

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