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Aeon to use AI-equipped smartphones to raise efficiency

Japanese retail chain to employ IBM's Watson to answer employee questions

Japanese retail behemoth Aeon will use artificial intelligence to help employees work more smoothly.

TOKYO -- Aeon aims to improve the efficiency of store operations with the use of artificial intelligence, enabling workers to solve problems and answer questions from customers independently.

The Japanese retail group plans to issue inexpensive smartphones to roughly 20,000 employees nationwide in fiscal 2017. Since the devices will come installed with an app for accessing Watson, the question-answering system developed by IBM, the workers will be able to ask questions either verbally or by typing in text.

Clerks will be able to find out about inventory and price changes without a computer terminal. In the future, the smartphones will also provide a way to sell products that are available online but not in stores.

The new system will be tested in a few hypermarkets operated by Aeon Retail until the end of February and then gradually rolled out at all 350 of its stores. It is also expected to be used at stores belonging to other group companies, such as Aeon Hokkaido and Aeon Kyushu.

The Aeon group operates around 20 call centers geared toward assisting company employees. Watson will try answering the question first, and if a clear solution is not available it will suggest the phone number for the call center best suited to deal with the problem.

Aeon expects the AI system will initially be able to handle around 20% of the questions fielded by the call centers. Eventually, the figure will be raised to 40%, reducing the call centers' workload and operating costs and freeing up workers to help with customer service at stores.

(Nikkei)

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