Digital agency Barbarian’s new receptionist, Barb, doesn’t collect a paycheck, isn’t getting breaks or benefits and can work endless overtime.
Barbarian, however, isn’t violating New York State labor law, because Barb is an Alexa-based tool connected to the messaging system Slack within an Echo Show, Amazon’s smart speaker with display screen. Barb, who has had her “job” since July, helps guests search for, identify and communicate with the agency’s 115 employees.
As Barbarian does still have its human receptionist, Barbarian CTO Chuck Fletcher describes Barb as an assistant to the receptionist—she determines guest intent, including who they want to see and why, and communicates this to employees via Slack. Employees receive a message from ReceptionBot upon arrival. They can select an option like “I’m on my way,” “Give me five minutes” or “Sorry, I can’t make it.” Barb then verbalizes this message to the guest.
“[This] could be ‘I’m here to see a friend for coffee,’ or ‘I’m here to pick up [a] date,’ or ‘I’m delivering a package,’” Fletcher said. “All those cases work great.”
Barbarian opted for the Echo Show in particular because it has a screen, so if there is confusion about which person a guest is trying to find—such as employees with similar names—Barb shows them pictures so they can confirm.
Fletcher said there have been a few times when guests haven’t understood what to do, but he didn’t have any stories about wild misunderstandings between voice assistant and human guests.
Barbarian invested several weeks on developing Barb over the course of six months, including determining the best flow of interaction. Barb is a somewhat novel application that helps demonstrate Barbarian’s interest in voice, he explained. “It’s one thing to come up with this idea, but to be able to do it well and in slick way speaks to the quality of what we do,” he added.
When asked if the automated assistant can do anything a human receptionist can’t, Fletcher stressed Barbarian’s love of its human receptionist and said the point is to integrate a tool that alleviates some work so the human receptionist isn’t tethered to the front desk and can focus on other areas of office management, including events and support.
“It’s super useful for after hours,” Fletecher added. “I wouldn’t say there’s anything that Alexa does better, except maybe it doesn’t get tired and doesn’t need to take breaks.”
While there has certainly been some broad anxiety about robots stealing jobs—a 2017 study from consulting firm McKinsey forecast a 20 percent drop in demand in the U.S. for office support workers like administrative assistants as a result of automation through the year 2030—Barbarian says there’s room for both Barb and her human counterparts.
“It’s a huge opportunity for the industry to modernize their reception infrastructure with an easy-to-implement piece of tech,” a rep added.
In fact, Barbarian has made the technology open-source, so other companies can customize their own Barbs.