Year in review: China's revolution in customer service automation
Thanks to developments of cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and mobile payments, a broad range of industries in China have been experimenting with businesses that use machines in place of manual labor. Let's take a look at some of the achievements made in China this year in automation.
1. Unmanned stores
Since China's Internet giant Alibaba opened an unmanned supermarket in 2017, the country's retail industry has witnessed a wave of unmanned stores springing up across the country this year. The technology has been creatively adopted by the retail industry for businesses including bookshops and grocery stores.
A customer scans his palm to pay for his purchases at an unmanned green grocery in Shanghai on December 1, 2018. [File photo: IC]
Unmanned stores incorporate a mix of technologies such as artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and mobile payments that allow customers to select and pay for goods without the need to interact with another person.
2. Unmanned restaurants
China's catering industry has also experimented with technology that allows parts of a restaurant to be automated. Early this year, Alibaba was a partner in a restaurant in Hangzhou where customers order and pay for meals using their smartphone. The food is then collected from a self-service pick-up point. The only employees at the restaurant are the cooks in the kitchen.
A customer passes the self-service food cabinets at an unmanned restaurant in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province on January 30, 2018. [File photo: VCG]
3. Unmanned hotel
The hospitality sector is another area that has turned to using technology to serve customers. This month, Alibaba opened its "hotel of the future". Guests will more often encounter intelligent robots than human employees in the corridors and behind the front desk. Customers check into the hotel using a facial recognition system. That same system allows them to have their face scanned to open the door to their room and to access other hotel services. Robots at the hotel also serve food, cocktails, and coffee. And making a booking, checking in, and checking out just takes a few clicks on a smartphone app.
A guest scans her face to enter her room at Alibaba's AI-driven " hotel of the future" in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province on December 17, 2018. [File photo: VCG]
4. Unmanned cars
Thanks to rapid advances in self-driving car technology, driverless cars and unmanned vehicles are increasingly common in China. Test tracks, and even some public roads, have been opened for self-driving cars this year in several cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing. And several e-commerce and express delivery companies have started using autonomous vehicles to deliver packages.
A driverless car [File photo: IC]
5. Unmanned minibuses
China's tech giant Baidu announced in July that it has begun mass production of the country's first commercial self-driving bus, the Apolong. The self-driving buses have been put to use in many cities for 'last-mile travel' trips, such as at tourist spots, airports, and on university campuses. Just this month, an Apolong minibus was put into operation at an ecological park in Wuhan to ferry around visitors.
A driverless mini bus ferries visitors around an ecological park in Wuhan, Hubei Province on December 14, 2018. [File photo: VCG]
6. Unmanned aerial vehicles
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, have been used in a diverse range of commercial applications in China in recent years, most notably in the logistics industry.
The takeaway food delivery company Ele.me announced in May that it had launched the country's first food delivery service using drones.
A drone delivers food for the takeaway food delivery company Ele.me in Shanghai on May 29, 2018. [File photo: VCG]
And in November, e-commerce giant JD.com made progress with using drones for deliveries when it launched its first large-scale UAV, which can carry up to 840 kilograms of cargo. The UAV can cruise at altitudes of up to 3,000 meters at speeds of over 200 kilometers an hour.