As predicted by market analysts, the new oracles of contemporary society, robotics is destined to be one of the most important technological challenges of the near future. Robotics will be used in many fields, from transport to human services and, not least, in the cultural sector.
The MAXXI Museum in Rome fully embraces this transformation. Last May, in fact, following the collaboration with Engineering, the Museum launched Chatbot, a new challenge for its visitors.
This is not one of those robots we normally picture, but a virtual agent similar to the better-known Cortana and Siri. In other words, Chatbot is a software capable of interacting with museum visitors, acting as a guide to their visit. To function, Chatbot only requires a smartphone connected to the Internet and a Facebook profile which, as we know, is available to everyone.
A totem is located in the MAXXI hall, announcing the application: a button generates a code linked to Chatbot which can also be used to collect virtual coins (Museum coins) to spend in the museum. Depending on the final amount (the more you interact with Chatbot, the more coins you collect) the user receives free gifts – a museum ticket and books, for example.
To chat with this virtual guide – the Museum does specify that a human guide remains irreplaceable – visitors must simply search for the museum page on Facebook and send a message. Chatbot answers immediately and after a brief introduction on how to use the application and a page that gives users the choice between English or Italian, visitors can begin to interact in chat. The conversation is not unrestricted, but guided through multiple choice questions from which the user must choose.
Chatbot’s language is simple and conversational, texts are short and provide essential information on the museum and its collections. The user can select which itinerary to follow from the ones suggested and access information about opening hours and tickets. In addition, images, audios and videos are made available which give more detail on topics during the guided visit.
Chatbot accompanies visitors step by step, providing information on the museum space and its itineraries. It is to be noted that such a visiting experience does not require users to be physically present in the museum. The chat, in fact, is active 24 hours a day and can also be used to organise future visits.
Confronted with such an initiative, we are instinctively tempted to stress the primacy of the living human guide. This is a person who is prepared and trained to establish human contact with visitors, mediating intelligently between them and the cultural heritage, calibrating modes and language, with the added value of the emotive experience and relationship that ensues. To ask these questions, however, in oppositional terms can be misleading, not to say rhetorical.
The museum’s virtual agent service represents a current solution and is available to many Facebook users, one of the most popular social networks in the world. The majority of these users are likely to be young people and adolescents, for whom mediated communication is a way of life. Intercepting this audience is effectively a challenge and, ultimately, an inclusive initiative from the point of view of museum use. The museum is starting to speak a different language. The Chatbot launch, therefore, represents not only another act of social media marketing, but also a project choice.
Above all, MAXXI is moving with the times: by choosing additional modes of communication it comes into closer contact with its visitors in order to understand their tastes and meet their demands in a contemporary way. This is the precise aim of artificial intelligence as it has so far developed. The software is autonomous and always active, created to offer assistance in customer care and promotional information.
At the same time, the Facebook login allows the museum to view visitors’ profiles, gathering data on their age, likes and interests. As Chatbot reminds us, the museum is renewing the promise made at its conception: “The MAXXI Museum is meant as a challenge: to viewing, to the length of stay in the museum and to the concept of a museum itself”.