Small talk with Luna: German robots increasingly in contact with customers

Smart robots can chat about the weather and answer customers' questions. Now some companies in Germany are testing which tasks human-like robots can take on and the expectations are high.

Small talk with Luna: German robots increasingly in contact with customers
Luna Pepper has been well liked by the customers in Bremen's Sparkasse branch. Photo: DPA

Luna Pepper learns fast. Everyday she is fed with new information which allows her to improve her communication with people.

The robot, whose home is a Sparkasse bank branch in Bremen, greets customers and can talk to them about the weather or tell a joke. “Please don’t be angry if I don’t know everything yet,” she says from time to time. The 120 cm tall Luna looks at her customers with shining eyes and her polite sentences, such as “if you’re satisfied, I am too,” make a lot of people smile.

The head of the Bremen branch, Alexander Löde, is proud of his new employee. “The robot supports us with both words and actions,” he says. An encounter with Luna is a special experience for everyone.

Robots with regular customer contact remain rare in Germany. According to the German Engineering Federation (VDMA) so-called humanoid robots with a human-like shape have mainly been used for research purposes and at events such as trade fairs. They are not widely used as an integral part of service concepts, explains the Managing Director of VDMA Robotics and Automation, Patrick Schwarzkopf.

But, “it is coming. I think humanoid robots which run on wheels are close to entering the market,” says Schwarzkopf. To answer simple questions, such as about a specific product, they are definitely usable. “In the next five years many people will have seen a robot”.

At Munich Airport last spring, travellers had the opportunity to talk to some of Luna’s colleagues. Just like in Bremen, the project managers chose the Pepper model from the Japanese provider SoftBank Robotics and gave the robot a female identity, calling her Josie.

Josie Pepper was at the airport for three months, but communication with her did not always go smoothly. “One of the biggest challenges was that people are not yet used to communicating with a robot,” says the project’s manager Julia Schmidt. “People took pictures with the robot, but they didn’t think that it was capable of answering a real question.” Nevertheless, Schmidt’s overall view is positive and she believes Josie went down well with customers.

Luna Pepper ready to talk to customers in the Bremen Sparkasse branch. Photo: DPA

Munich Airport is currently using Josie for events where she answers visitors’ questions as a guest of honour. “Robotics and artificial intelligence continue to occupy us,” says Schmidt. Whether a robot will become a permanent fixture in the airport is unclear. According to Schmidt, the areas in which Josie offers the greatest value are currently being discussed .

The Sparkasse in Munich has also been using a robot called Monaco since the beginning of the year to help show people the possibilities of a digital world. Monaco Pepper was also good at small talk, says the bank spokesman Joachim Fröhler. “He goes down very well with the visitors.”

Fröhler assumes that Monaco’s area of operation will expand. “This is only the beginning. Artificial intelligence is a topic which will increasingly occupy us in society.”

The Sparkasse in Bremen have a lot of plans for their robot Luna going forwards. Indeed, she cost around €20,000 without programming. They hope that she will welcome a customer into the lobby and then inform the appropriate employee who can help them.

Luna will also help with foreign-language clients, as they plan for her to learn English, Russian and Turkish. “If she knows the foreign languages we can talk to her and she can translate,” explains Löde, the branch manager.

All this is made possible by the software in the robot. For Luna, the company Blackout Technologies based in Bremen provides her ‘personality’. Certain skills and responses are programmed into her and then other computing powers come from networks online which allow the robot to process voice queries and formulate answers.

Schwarzkopf doesn’t think that robots bring any special new safety risks. “It’s a question of internet security which is not any different from other online applications,” he says. However, as with other technologies, intelligent robots also have the task of securing data from potential hacks.

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How the chatty robot Franzi is cheering up German patients

Cleaning robot Franzi makes sure floors are spotless at the Munich hospital where she works, and has taken on a new role during the pandemic: cheering up patients and staff.

How the chatty robot Franzi is cheering up German patients
Franzi at the Munich hospital where she works. Photo: AFP/Christof Stache

“Can you move out the way, please? I need to clean,” trills the robot in German when people block her pre-programmed cleaning route.

“You need to move! I really want to clean!” she squeaks at those who still don't get out of the way. And if that doesn't work, digital tears begin to stream from her LED-light eyes.

“Visitors are not allowed in the pandemic, so Franzi entertains the patients a bit,” says Constance Rettler of Dr. Rettler, the company in charge of cleaning the Neuperlach hospital that provided the robot.

READ ALSO: Small talk with Luna: German robots increasingly in contact with customers

Three times a day, Franzi bustles through the clinic's entrance hall, her feet automatically mopping the floors. Amused patients take photos of her, and some even stop to chat to the metre-high robot.

“Ah, there you are my friend,” cries one elderly lady with a drip on her arm upon catching sight of Franzi.

“One of our recent patients came down three times a day to talk to her,” smiles Tanja Zacherl, who oversees hospital maintenance.

Extra employee

Created by a company in Singapore, Franzi was originally named Ella and spoke English before coming to Munich early this year.

Yet her German is perfect as she tells her interviewers that she “never wants to grow up” and that cleaning is her passion.

When prompted, she can also sing classic German pop songs and even rap.

Franzi on the move. Photo: AFP/Christof Stache

Rettler is adamant that the robot is not taking jobs away from real human beings but instead is supposed to “support” her flesh-and-blood colleagues, who have become harder to come by during the coronavirus pandemic.

“With the pandemic, there is lots of extra disinfecting work to be done in hospitals,” says Rettler.

“While Franzi is cleaning the floors, our employees can concentrate on doing that.”

A robot has its limits however. It is still unable to get into tight
corners, and if it hits an obstacle, it bursts into tears and remains stuck until rescued by a human.

Yet Franzi also has a reason to be cheerful. After a test phase of several weeks, she appears to have settled in at the Neuperlach hospital.

Rettler's company has therefore decided to keep her there permanently rather than deploy her elsewhere.

READ ALSO: How robots could shape Germany's political future