Robot waiter and more: Mastercard shows it’s not just a card company

In Photo: The Mastercard booth at the Money20/20 Asia 2018 carried the theme “Live Without Boundaries.”

SINGAPORE—About 15 kilometers northeast of the iconic Merlion Plaza, within Safra Punggol, a five-story lifestyle hub nestled in verdant surroundings and the sound of whistling wind and bustling leaves, a robot would like to know your preferred pizza.

“Pepper,” as its manufacturer SoftBank Robotics named the humanoid in certain markets, stands 4 feet tall with big, glowing eyes, a small smile and a tablet on its chest, an android purported to “identify” human emotions. On that windy high noon, however, its task was to identify the cravings of Pizza Hut guests inside that quaint branch.

Tobias Puehse, Mastercard Asia Pacific vice president of Innovation Management and Digital Payment and Labs, makes an order to a humanoid robot waiter, which its manufacturer SoftBank Robotics calls “Pepper” in certain markets.

The whole setup was the first of a five-day test run to see how a humanoid robot can serve as a fast-food waiter, from taking orders to processing payment transactions.

Pepper came out from the staff door to assist its first-ever customer, Tobias Puehse, Asia Pacific vice president of Innovation Management and Digital Payment and Labs of Mastercard, the company behind the initiative, together with Pepper’s Tokyo-based manufacturers and the American restaurant chain.

“To place your order, please let me know what you would like to have,” Pepper said, moving its arms and fingers as an articulating human would.

Puehse replied, “Pizza.” Pepper asked which one. Puehse said, “Pepperoni.”

“Wow, nice one,” Pepper retorted, proceeding to ask if the customer would like to add sides, or anything else.

If the scene seemed to be straight out of the future, well, that’s the point. “We are not waiting for the future to happen,” Puehse said at the start of that exclusive demo/global launch. “We are making it happen today.”

Back at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Center here, at the recent inaugural Asian edition of Money20/20, the world’s leading payments and financial-services event, Mastercard Asia Pacific Copresident Ari Sarker said that they don’t see themselves as just a cards company.

Pilot tests of cutting-edge undertakings, such as introducing a robot waiter, are par for the course for the leading global payments and technology company, which constantly pushes for technological innovations aimed to simplify life, according to Puehse.

He said the idea for the humanoid robot cashier, powered by Mastercard’s Connected Device API, was not to replace human labor but, rather, create consumer awareness regarding fast, simple and secure digital payments.

The Mastercard executive ended the demo with Pepper by paying with Masterpass, Mastercard’s digital-wallet service. The cashless transaction required no payment instrument or customer credentials—just a QR code scan—minimizing the risk of compromising sensitive information.

Through such efforts, Puehse said they want to make sure that cash is not in the mind of the consumer as much, and that they find more value in engaging digitally.

“If we just translate a physical payment into a digital payment without adding some differentiating capability, or some service to a consumer in terms of security, personalization or loyalty, I don’t think we’ve done our job,” he said. “We’re also here to help augment the payment experience above and beyond what you are familiar with today, and this is just one of the experiments we have to make that happen.”

Vital in achieving that goal is having the partners that share the same vision of technology, hence the partnership with Pizza Hut and SoftBank Robotics on this particular project. Puehse said that, as a payments-technology company, Mastercard wants to demonstrate that it’s open for business and open for cocreation with its partners.

But the partners and consumers aren’t the only targets for these types of solutions. Merchants are also seen to gain value from such innovations, according to Puehse. Mastercard’s Connected Device API allows even small and medium enterprises to build applications without necessarily having huge technology teams of their own.

“Bringing all of these together is something really unique for Mastercard,” Puehse said. “I think only we can do this, because we’re connected to all the banks and payment facilitation, to merchants interested in creating new experiences and to technology partners.”

He added that, with the humanoid robot waiter, Mastercard is proud in taking another lead in the payment sector. “A lot of people talk about innovation, but bringing it in front of the customer, making it useful and easy enough, that’s something we’re excited about.” But how does Mastercard identify innovation ideas that are worthy of pursuit and scale? “Consumer needs,” Puehse said.

Asking what a certain technology’s capability in pushing for innovation is the wrong way to go about things. According to the Mastercard executive, the right question to ask is, “What are the jobs that consumers face today that are hard? Is it hard to pay a bill? Is it hard to find the change you need to go into the train? Those are the moments where we have an opportunity for innovation.”

Next is the innovation’s feasibility evaluation. Launching a technology is one thing; ensuring that it works sufficiently well is another. There’s no point in launching a new technology that is not usable, user-friendly or scalable, Puehse said.

Mastercard also looks at how they can “do well while doing good.” The goal is to push for sustainable projects that align with their traditional corporate goals, while creating more transparent and more inclusive societies. Aside from the launch of the humanoid robot in Safra Punggol, Mastercard rolled out more innovations in its booth at Money20/20 that bannered the theme “Live Without Boundaries.” The set up gave guests a peek at the company’s “intuitive, inclusive and imaginative” solutions.

These include big data analysis of customer behavior based from day-to-day transactions to offer intuitive, relevant solutions; QR acceptance in Facebook Messenger (already live in Africa, moving into Asia this year, according to Puehse) to cater to a wider reach for an inclusive cashless journey; and chip-enabled, wearable payment tokens such as a ring or a Fitbit device that are imaginative commerce tools that create efficiencies.

According to Puehse, all the products are ready for consumer use. “Now, the question becomes, ‘How quickly can our customers absorb all this technology?’ Part of that relies on our APT [Applied Predictive Technologies], or how we quickly could set up experiments and test-and-learn environments so we can bring these experiences to consumers quicker.”

An example of this was the five-day test run of Pepper as a humanoid robot waiter. Puehse believes that everyone desires smarter experiences, and Mastercard aims to deliver by “getting more of the things people want, and less of the things they don’t want.”

“We want to create an experience that enriches their lives—for example, by making them worry less about things as simple as ordering or paying. Those should be in the background,” he said. “What’s really important is to enjoy the pizza.”


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