If you have been wondering what the post-pandemic world might be like, an excellent place to start is South Korea. Years before the coronavirus, they embraced a concept known as 'Untact', a vision for a highly automated society that required little or no human contact. Not only does that idea now seem prescient in a world still struggling to re-open, it is a glimpse into just how different our society may become when our apps, algorithms, and automatons combine to create operating systems for daily life.
For some time, South Korea had been experimenting with minimizing the human interactions required for daily activities. At Dal.komm Coffee, a robot barista can brew 90 cups an hour while at Lab101 in Hongdae, an unmanned retail store, a futuristic steel door slides open when visitors swipe their credit card to gain entry. Fast-food chain Lotteria has kiosks in over 800 of its 1,350 stores, while KFC has installed digital cashiers in all of its outlets. Cosmetic counters in Seoul department stores typically feature smart mirrors with augmented reality, while at some supermarkets, shoppers can choose a basket color that indicates whether they want to be spoken to, or not.
After the COVID-19 crisis hit, the South Korean government incorporated the Untact concept into their 76 trillion won ($62 billion) "New Deal" program. The stimulus plan seeks to drive investment in remote work, high-speed broadband, robots, drones, and other systems that facilitate automated, contactless transactions. It is not the first time that the South Korean government has made a national commitment to emerging technologies. Since the 1980s, a clear national policy has prioritized investment in network infrastructure and core technologies. For example, over the last five years, the country has doubled its number of industrial robots. South Korea ranks second only to Singapore in terms of 'robot density' with 774 industrial robots per 10,000 employees.
However, what makes the new focus on Untact innovation curious, is that rather than just supporting new technology, it acknowledges a shift in consumer behavior - particularly younger consumers - who feel awkward in social situations, and prefer to interact via smartphones. As I wrote in my first book back in 2009, while the rest of us were still on dial-up and were texting on basic feature phones, South Korea had broadband, social media, and smartphones. This also meant they were among the first countries to experience the challenges of digital addiction and social alienation. Little has changed. A recent local marketing campaign for Hyundai Card seeks to empathize with the 'loneliness' of the Generation Z population. The campaign aims to redefine loneliness as an opportunity 'to define one's taste and lifestyle choices'. I'll leave it up to you whether that is reassuring or a dystopian preview into our upcoming mental health apocalypse.
The Untact trend is not just limited to South Korea. Japan has some of the most advanced consumer and enterprise robotics companies in the world. China has automated convenience stores, robot restaurants, and AI hotels while in the US, there are active trials of food delivery robots, cashier-less supermarkets, parcel delivery by drone, and AI interfaces for everything from insurance to healthcare and financial services. These initiatives have been accelerated by the pandemic, and are likely to become even more important as economies attempt to open up before there is a widely available vaccine.
As we move forward, there are a number of questions we should consider:
1. How do we leverage 020 to accelerate innovation?
020, or Online to Offline, is a concept from China that describes the two-way relationship between online consumers and real-world activities. The more we use apps to purchase products or co-ordinate services, the more data we can collect to train our machine learning platforms and then launch even smarter and better applications.
2. What is the difference between delivery and service?
The Untact trend forces us to delineate between when it's appropriate to get something done as simply and quickly as possible (delivery), and when we should bring human empathy and intuition to create amazing experiences (service).
3. How do you keep the world at human scale?
There is always a danger as we leverage machines and automation that we start to design solutions that are no longer at human scale and, in doing so, undermine customer experiences.
In my view, the point of all this is not designing a world that replaces humans with machines - or maintaining social distancing to create sterile environments devoid of life. COVID-19 merely reinforced the importance of creating interfaces, channels, and platforms capable of running autonomously and remaining resilient in the face of crisis and change.
For too long, we have focused on building sophisticated systems of engagement that harnessed our data and attention to allow third parties to market to us. The real opportunity is much more interesting. Can we reimagine our economy to be more like a digital operating system of interlocked autonomous applications that leverage our data to orchestrate and optimize our lives?