Service Robots: Rising or Falling Stars?
Research on the impact and role of service robots in healthcare, hospitality, and beyond engages strategic industry partners and enables synergies between research, teaching, and societal impact.
Call to Action
Society at large needs to understand the risks and benefits of introducing service robots to address societal challenges. Technological advancement is profoundly impacting the very nature of crucial services such as healthcare, education, hospitality, retail, and banking. Societal developments, like an aging population, are putting great stress on national healthcare systems. As a result, a shortage of healthcare professionals and the global societal threat of perceived loneliness call for the mindful consideration of service robots to mitigate potential harmful consequences.
Service robots are defined by Wirtz et al. in their 2018 Journal of Service Management
article, “Brave New World,” as “system-based autonomous and adaptable interfaces that interact, communicate, and deliver service to an organization’s stakeholders.” The success of service robots depends on the value they create for users but also on the value they create or destroy for the network in which those users are embedded. In carefully weighing the benefits and risks, each member of the network might support or impede an individual’s acceptance of the service robot. However, elderly people and their value networks of formal and informal caregivers have exhibited some reluctance to accept robotic services; this reluctance is a key challenge for service innovators in this field.
More recently, the already existing global societal challenge of loneliness has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic and is even referred to as the “global loneliness virus” or “loneliness epidemic” in some publications, representing an unspoken toll of COVID-19. In the social-distancing era, service robots might provide regular, everyday social support.
The innovation mimics a living lab community in which researchers, students, and strategic industry partners collaborate to understand the role of service robots in addressing societal challenges. The innovation is truly interdisciplinary, involving business, healthcare, design, and robotics. The initiative received EU funding, resulted in a double PhD program with Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, and is attracting more and more strategic industry partnerships.
The innovation is approximately five years old, resulting in numerous international refereed journal and book publications, PhD dissertations, conference presentations, keynote sessions, lifelong learning workshops, a non-academic YouTube video, and many more dissemination reports and presentations. The structure is organic and agile on purpose, enabling the innovation to address timely societal issues.
With our innovation, we address major societal issues such as loneliness; an aging population; and staff shortages in service industries such as healthcare, retail, and hospitality.
During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, we investigated to what extent companion robots could mitigate feelings of loneliness. Based on a large-scale netnographic study, we provided empirical evidence for a typology of the different roles companion robots could take on to address feelings of loneliness.
By collaborating with partners in healthcare, we provided healthcare managers and policy advisors with a typology of roles that service robots could fill in care networks, which usually consist of elderly patients, formal caregivers such as doctors, and informal caregivers such as family members.
Our collaboration with a strategic partner in hospitality resulted in evidence-based recommendations on how to build a robot-infused team in a restaurant, emphasizing substitution and augmentation and the effect on guests’ repatronage intentions.
All our research has involved the active participation of students, who are challenged in final course projects with direct relevance to one of our strategic industry partners. They get the opportunity to work on an international team, manage their project, and present their deliverables to an industry jury. These projects contribute to students’ personal development by creating an awareness of societal challenges, industry partnerships and personal employability, global citizenship, and academic perspective.
The established strategic partnerships will also offer research and teaching opportunities in the near future that enable us to address timely societal challenges.