She researches the cobot, a collaborative robot

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) for marketing and in commercial enterprises like hotels and restaurants has become the focus of Catherine Prentice’s current research. She plans to further explore how AI can improve the consumer experience and foster consumer loyalty to a brand or an organisation as well as how it can improve employee efficiency. She is currently particularly interested in the cobot – a collaborative robot designed to directly interact and work with humans.

A marketing professor at the University of Southern Queensland, Prentice lived in Malaysia, China and the UK before moving to Australia. With a bachelor’s degree in European literature, an MBA from Lincoln University in the UK and a doctorate in marketing from Victoria University, she has wide-ranging academic interests.

In recent years she has published widely on emotional intelligence, but now her interest has turned to AI. “My current project is identifying the optimal cobot model to maximise the use of robots as well as human employees and to optimise the collaboration,” she says, adding that she wants to understand why the cobot model isn’t more popular in Australia although it has been widely adopted in other nations such as China.

Prentice is also interested the potential for AI to improve employees’ task efficiency and in how it may affect their “turnover intention” – their willingness to stay in the job. The cobot model, she says, could address labour shortages in difficult-to-staff locations, such as remote hotels and tourist destinations. She wants to understand more about consumer perception of an organisation’s use of AI and whether AI is thought to assist the consumer.

“The customer experience should be measured from different dimensions,” she says, “from the service encounter experience with the company, the experience with the employees, and the experience with the physical facilities.”

Humans, of course, react in different ways to different types of robots, which range through varying degrees of humanoid and non-humanoid types, Prentice says. “We don’t have enough research to provide evidence on which one works better.”

She is interested in further understanding exactly how a cobot model could work and determining how best to deploy AI in the workplace: whether cobots work more efficiently than human employees, and in optimising the advantages of both.

In China, the FlyZoo hotel in Hangzhou, 100 kilometres south of Shanghai and owned by the Ali Baba group, is managed with AI. There is automated smartphone check-in, facial recognition software in the elevator and at the door to get into the room, and robot room service. Humans are nowhere to be found. “The hotel is new, and there is academic research on it,” says Prentice, noting that companies will have to find a balance between robots and human staff to avoid alienating customers, and the balance may be different in different nations.

“Too many robots can cause the ‘uncanny effect’” she says. “This is the customer’s reaction to interacting with robots. Sometimes they feel happy about the novelty, but sometimes it’s a spooky feeling.” She says she and her colleagues have found the uncanny effect in other fields. “For this hotel particularly, we’re still doing research on it.”

The Australian