Accenture Interactive's new innovation center
Company experts are clearly convinced that the teething problems of new consumer technology such as wearables, driverless cars, the "internet of things", and delivery drones will soon be resolved. Talking robots are also about to enter call centres and shops in order to deal with customer enquiries. Welcome Brave New World?
Nestling between Nice and Antibes in France's glamorous answer to Silicon Valley, the centre is operated by Accenture Interactive, a part of the firm's digital business unit that provides digital marketing and commerce services to companies. Accenture is an innovation partner for seven of the top 10 global retailers, including Tesco, and major fmcg companies such as P&G, Nestlé or Unilever.
The interior of the new 500m² complex is designed to reflect the structure of the human brain: a "rational" half for the development of Artificial Intelligence etc. and an "emotional" half with meeting rooms for workshops and creative brainstorming sessions.
The star turn at the opening ceremony was, of course, the robot. The latest generation of robots goes beyond speech. Voice recognition technology, combined with facial expression and body language interpretation systems, enable our metallic friends to analyse human emotions and adapt to our moods.
This seemingly improbable advance was demonstrated by Accenture Interactive's R&D director Alexandre Naressi who chatted with a dinky little robot (humans find them less threatening when they are small and have childlike features) about his favourite colour.
As an excellent party trick, the robot, whose name we did not learn, turned its eyes and even the lighting red when Naressi revealed that this was his favourite colour. So one up for robots on man's hitherto best friend: the dog.
Accenture certainly can't be accused of twiddling its thumbs and is currently working on a whole range of projects from the development of new apps to online delivery services which anticipate rather than just react to customer orders.
One of the company's main strengths, however, is the development of software and digital technology platforms to enhance marketing performance. These aim to optimise service quality and thus the experience of online customers. At call centres, for example, voice analysis technology can help staff judge a client's mood.
Provided callers have given permission in advance, operators can also see their latest comments on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
Curtis also emphasises how near Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is to professional marketing. "If a customer complaint is dealt with quickly and professionally by means of enhanced technology, it does more than avert a possible crisis, it can gain a company valuable marketing brownie points."
Curtis therefore predicts that the roles of Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and Chief Information Officer (CIO) will become increasingly blurred.
Customers can also be ranked according to their relative stature as "influencers". Is the company, for instance, talking to one person only or to someone who has 2,000 followers? Inevitably, this type of hierarchy gives rise to a number of moral questions concerning Web 2.0.
Humans make problems
In fact, every technological advance seems to bring a whole new set of human problems with it. This has been recognised by Accenture which regularly appends a discussion on ethics to its research papers.
How, for instance, will the blind cope with quiet electric vehicles? Will driverless cars lead to a higher rate of alcoholism among the middle classes because everyone can drink what they like when they go out for a meal? And, despite collision avoidance technology, could delivery drones start dropping from the sky or pose a security threat?
Most people are probably more worried about their job. Will artificial intelligence create a legion of unemployed and thus cause social unrest? In the UK, for instance, it has been estimated that one in three workplaces could be taken over by a computer or robot within only 20 years.
While admitting the problems, Roytman is optimistic about the potential for good: "Robots could free human beings from drudgery and enable them to do more value-added, creative work."
What, for instance, is the point of social media monitoring whose insights are not channelled to the right people within the organisation?
Due to silo-shaped hierarchies, numerous managers will often deal with individual client aspects, but it is rare for one, preferably top-level, person to be responsible for the overall customer experience. "The whole corporate culture must be shaped towards providing customer satisfaction. If you don't do this, then your competition will do it for you," Harles warns.
Meanwhile, as technology advances exponentially, one must ask whether most businesses are ready for the huge changes ahead? After a visit to Sophia Antipolis, the answer is almost certainly: no.
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