From robot to avatar and call centre agent


Article: From robot to avatar and call centre agent

03/2020 – It was the robot that impressed travellers from Frankfurt to Tokyo. Now the concierge service from DB Systel is being taken to the next level, with SEMMI also answering questions over the phone or as a digital avatar in future.

The socially intelligent robot SEMMI (the acronym stands for socio-empathetic human-machine interaction) has been assisting Deutsche Bahn staff since it shot into the public spotlight late last year. DB Systel supplies the AI platform on which the concierge service runs. For product owner Thomas Schiffler, it’s much more than just a robot: “It’s an AI platform that understands speech and provides the right answers to customer enquiries.” SEMMI initially provided passengers at Frankfurt Airport with reliable information on flights and directions to terminals. The system then made its international debut in May 2019. In Tokyo, SEMMI was measured against a system from Japanese rail operator JR East to determine which robot passengers preferred and which AI proved more reliable. “The result couldn’t be clearer”, says Thomas Schiffler. “Our SEMMI is expected to welcome visitors to the Olympic Games in Tokyo this year under the direction of colleagues from JR East.”

In late 2019, SEMMI showed what it could do at Berlin’s main station. The robot was tested thoroughly in the DB Travel Centre for three months, conducting 17,000 dialogues over this period. Travellers mainly asked SEMMI for timetable information or information on station facilities. In most cases, the robot managed to answer the travellers’ questions reliably. SEMMI demonstrated another of its strengths during the test period. An analysis of the held conversations helped constantly expand the knowledge base and add new batteries of questions. Around 74 percent of surveyed users that conversed with SEMMI in Berlin’s main station rated the system positively.

All-important inner values

SEMMI has demonstrated many times over that it isn’t a gimmick to entertain travellers; 60 percent of all dialogues are travel-related. Moreover, SEMMI has learnt a lot from its stints in Frankfurt, Berlin and Tokyo, offers passengers quick answers to common questions and so helps significantly reduce staff workload in travel centres. So there’s no doubt that SEMMI will also be deployed at other locations in the near future. Yet a robot has moving parts that are driven by motors. It’s a machine where technical problems can occur. And vandalism is another issue. That’s why SEMMI has been further developed so it doesn’t necessarily have to be a robot: the intelligent, cloud-based interactive voice response system can be used irrespective of its external appearance – for instance as a digital avatar.

The prototype set up in the Skydeck shows how the avatar's external appearance can be customised. The information displayed provides travellers with additional added value

The AI platform is the same, only SEMMI is displayed as a digital avatar on any kind of screen. “On the hardware side, all you need is a screen, a microphone, a loudspeaker, a camera, some computer equipment and an internet connection”, says Thomas Schiffler. Basically just the kind of equipment already installed in many stations. The advantages are manifold: SEMMI is less prone to vandalism, the system is also much cheaper to use with an avatar than with a robot. Travellers also enjoy substantial added value, with the system displaying additional information such as timetables or route information. The avatar’s appearance can be customised in line with corporate design specifications.

"We use the same basic technology when using SEMMI in the call centre as we do when SEMMI is a robot or avatar. But we’ve tailored the answers to the specific information that airport staff require."

Thomas Schiffler, product owner, DB Systel GmbH

Thomas Schiffler, Product Owner, DB Systel GmbH

But SEMMI can do much more: Frankfurt Airport is trialling the system in its call centre. SEMMI helps resolve telephone queries from airport staff where passengers have asked them for flight information, but staff don’t have this information at their fingertips. “Here we’ve benefited hugely from our experience in the field trial and can build on this”, says Thomas Schiffler. The new hotline is now being tested, but soon the concierge service will be answering telephone calls automatically. The answers staff receive, however, differ from the kind of answer travellers receive. “We use the same basic technology when using SEMMI in the call centre as we do when SEMMI is a robot or avatar. But we’ve tailored the answers to the specific information that airport staff require.”

One plattform, different interfaces

Whether it’s a robot, avatar or in the call centre – these kinds of systems will help DB staff in future to focus on the genuinely complicated cases to make our customers’ travel experience even better. Anyone interested can now try out an initial version of the avatar in the Skydeck (Frankfurt).

Are you interested in SEMMI? Visit for more information – or register to visit SEMMI in the Skydeck of the Frankfurt Silver Tower and find out first-hand about the latest developments. Deutsche Bahn staff can sign up for updates from the SEMMI DB Planet page (currently in German only).