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Four science fiction trends the pandemic made a reality

For centuries, science fiction writers have used their platforms to predict the coming of new technologies. A classic example is how Jules Verne envisioned advancements like gasoline-powered cars, fax machines, and an Internet-like system of communication decades before they came to fruition. While some writers were truly savants, many drew references from the scientists and innovators of their eras and imagined how societal shifts might drive the adoption of radical new technology.

Often, innovations can remain on the outskirts until social change accelerates adoption. One of the most impactful social transformations of our era has been the COVID pandemic, which catalyzed technological trends that sci-fi writers had long predicted would make their heyday. Being forced to stay in our homes, avoid physical contact, and endure labor shortages were all shifts that drove the adoption of technologies first predicted in science fiction that now appear to be here to stay.

TOUCHLESS FRONT DESKS

Years before credit cards emerged, science-fiction writer Edward Bellamy described a cashless society in his 1888 novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887. He wrote that normal business transactions would become totally obviated, eliminating the passing of money between customers and shopkeepers.

While COVID initially shut down most service-based providers, reopening meant finding ways to minimize human contact at front desks. That included automating tasks such as filling out paperwork, booking appointments, and taking payments.

Thankfully, many technological solutions were already available, and so businesses rapidly adopted things like tap-enabled point-of-sale devices, text-based appointment reminders, and booking chatbots, along with establishing “text when you arrive” protocols and using mobile apps to manage payments both at the storefront and away.

In 2020, the National Retail Federation’s State of Retail Payments study found that “67 percent of retailers surveyed now accept some form of no-touch payment… Among retailers that had implemented contactless payments, 94 percent expect the increase to continue over the next 18 months .”

While humanoid robot receptionists, the sort envisioned by Isaac Asimov, don’t yet greet us at our dental offices and salons, touchless interactions can provide convenience, ease of use, and cost savings that many businesses are reluctant to give up.

AI ASSISTANTS

The adoption of AI-powered chatbots grew exponentially during the pandemic. A 2022 Instabot survey found that 52% of businesses with websites claim they are using chatbots and 23% say they are likely to adopt them.

Driven in part by rising demand for e-commerce and online shopping during the pandemic, as well as employment shortages and shifts among teams of human customer service agents, chatbots can now fill an important need. Improvements in natural language processing technology, as well as pervasive exposure, have helped eliminate much of the initial pushback from consumers regarding “talking with a robot” and increased acceptance. Has the uncanny valley been bridged by familiarity and technological advancement?

Yes and no. Software provider Khoros notes that only 35% of consumers believe that chatbots are more capable than human agents, and 73% prefer to keep their interactions with chatbots limited to pre-qualifying questions only. When looking for answers to simple questions, 74% of internet users still prefer chatbots, according to PSFK research.

With market research firms predicting the chatbot market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 23.9% from 2022 through 2030, it seems that AI-powered chatbot interactions will become much more prevalent in the coming years.

MEETING ANYWHERE

Many of us grew up watching reruns of futuristic video chats in the 1960s TV show The Jetsons. Wall-mounted videophones appeared in the 1927 German film Metropolisas well as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, videoconferencing has been commonplace for decades, but our society’s forced isolation from work, school, gyms, and social settings during COVID exponentially accelerated the adoption of these services.

Market research firm Sensor Tower reported in 2021 that “videoconferencing app usage hit 21 times pre-Covid levels,” as indicated by the combined monthly active users of Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams.

Real-time video API provider Agora also saw dramatic adoption, noting that industry categories with the greatest pre- to post-pandemic adoption trends included customer service (+2,689%), HR (+4,120%), and health (+956%) .

While videoconferencing technology hit a deep “trough of disillusionment” as so many suffered from “Zoom fatigue,” the pandemic also helped to identify use cases where the benefits of meeting anywhere outweigh the downsides.

The rise of real-time engagement technology presents new use cases for businesses that no longer need to deal with effortful back-and-forths with customers who want consultations or appointments. Combining online booking, chatbots, and videoconferencing tools, a hot lead can instantly be taken to a face-to-face interaction and sold in real time.

PERSONALIZED AND OMNICHANNEL MARKETING

It’s no doubt creepy to watch the scene from the film adaptation of sci-fi classic Minority Report where every interactive billboard speaks the lead character’s name as he walks by, tailoring their pitch. While this is an extreme version of personalization, there’s clearly a delicate balance between privacy and convenience.

Perhaps because we hid our faces behind masks and decreased our time face-to-face, consumers began to crave personalized one-to-one marketing experiences. Research from McKinsey indicates that among consumers, 71% expect personalized interactions from companies, and 76% report they get frustrated when marketing experiences are impersonal.

Luckily, key technological advancements that emerged in the past few years are helping to make this a reality. As consumers became more dependent on their smartphones for shopping during COVID, text-based marketing and shopping interactions became more prevalent.

Additionally, during COVID, online spending grew by nearly 35%. And indeed, this growth in e-commerce accelerated by the pandemic appears to be continuing in 2022 as consumer buying habits, and the technology to support them, are now so widespread.

These innovations mean that a one-dimensional mobile strategy is no longer enough for brands to stay relevant with consumers. Instead, top retailers should invest in digital strategies that enable them to provide an omnichannel brand presence, helping them sustain relationships with consumers wherever they are.


Amaya is Chief Product Officer at Instabot, a conversational AI platform, and has 15 years of experience in marketing & product leadership.

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