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8/13/2014
09:45 AM
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Robot Room Service Hits Aloft Hotel Group

The "botlr" -- a robotic butler -- will deliver small goods to hotel guests upon request.

Robots Rising: 7 Real-Life Roles
Robots Rising: 7 Real-Life Roles
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Aloft Hotels, part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, is set to begin testing its first automated hospitality associate, a robot called A.L.O.

The technocentric hotel group (the art above guests' beds depicts a circuit board) is also testing the flexibility of English and the patience of copy editors by calling its robot a "Botlr," a word which here means "robot butler" rather than "bottler."

A.L.O. is scheduled to report for duty August 20 at the Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, Calif., where it will assist Aloft personnel with the delivery of small items to guests' rooms and the distribution of towels.

Brian McGuinness, global brand leader for Starwood's Specialty Select Brands, said in a statement -- half-serious it seems -- that hiring for the position was a challenge because the company wanted someone who could work around the clock.

[Worry that robots are taking over the world? See Robot Vs. Human Smackdown.]

Steve Cousins, CEO of Savioke, the company that designed A.L.O. (which is called SaviOne by the company), said in a phone interview that the hope is A.L.O. will free human employees from time-consuming, mundane tasks so they can serve guests more creatively.

"It's a way to empower the staff to take on a bit more," said Cousins. "It allows the desk staff to multitask."

If all goes well, more bots will follow in coming months, at the Aloft in Cupertino and other locations. That would be consistent with predictions: According to a study last year by researchers at the University of Oxford, the probability that baggage porters and bellhops will see their jobs automated is estimated to be 83%.

Cousins, however, insists the hotel's staff does not see A.L.O. as a threat to their jobs. "They describe it as cute," he said, adding "It's not out there to replace people. It's there to help them. The more we work on robots, the more appreciation we have of what fantastic and wonderful creatures people are."

Shrink-wrapped in a multi-hued, collared vinyl uniform -- "aesthetically reminiscent of R2D2," the bot's bio explains -- A.L.O. can navigate through the hotel on its own, at walking speed. It can communicate wirelessly with hotel systems, like the elevator, to help it get around and can move through interior spaces where WiFi and cellular reception drops out. It will alert the front desk if it gets stuck, which isn't supposed to happen very often.

Upon receipt of a request from a guest, hotel staff load the requested item into A.L.O.'s cargo space and direct it to the guest's room through its touch-screen. Cousins said that while it's possible to direct A.L.O. through a Web interface, someone still has to load the items that A.L.O. delivers. Enabling video chat between the front desk and A.L.O. has been considered but hasn't been implemented, he added.

When A.L.O. arrives at the designated room, it calls the phone in the room to alert the guest. The robot's camera detects the opening of the door, presents the requested item, then asks if it has fulfilled the guest's request. It also solicits a rating, from one to five stars, before returning to its charging station to await new orders.

"If you give it a high rating it does a little dance," said Cousins. "Part of this is about delighting the guest."

That's also why A.L.O. doesn't interact through voice commands: good speech recognition is hard and can easily frustrate people. "The challenge with voice recognition is when you start speaking to people, you set up expectations of intelligence," said Cousins, who added that the problem is compounded by the difficulty of capturing voice commands accurately in an open space with multiple potential sound sources.

A.L.O. has been programmed to interpret tweets of its hashtag, #MeetBotlr, as a tip, though that probably isn't the sort of tip sharing the human staff expects.

IT must support employees on the go as well as build mobile apps for customers. Both initiatives still have a long way to go. Get the new Frictionless IT: Mobility issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest today (free registration required).

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
8/15/2014 | 7:40:47 AM
Re: Dehumanising of the "Experience"
I think that there will always be people who need a human touch but that segment is getting smaller by the day.  I can't say that I'd be creeped out by a robot drawing blood as long as it isn't stabbing at me wildly or making jerky movement on the way to my veins.  A robo room service delivery system wouldn't bother me at all or even robo tellers at the check in desk.  Some things I just don't need a personal touch for and I'm OK with doing a little work my self to avoid a conversation full of verifying information.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
8/14/2014 | 1:13:03 PM
Re: Dehumanising of the "Experience"
Excellent point about dehumanization. How would most of us feel at our next medical appointment if a robot did our blood testing instead of a human being? There is a creepy factor here.
anon8146356282
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anon8146356282,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/14/2014 | 10:22:26 AM
Dehumanising of the "Experience"
I'm a technophile and absolutely love things like this, however since my career is in medical robotics I must speak for my clients (workers) and users (patients) and say that I believe the general public will be turned off, if not even deeply offended by the use of a mechanical proxy instead of a human being.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Ninja
8/13/2014 | 9:05:17 PM
Re: Robots raise the bar
R2D2 had a lot more character than these robots appear to have. Really to satisfy all tastes, a hotel should offer guests their choice.  Some would like a robot to avoid any social interaction at all, but some would gladly tip a person just for that human touch.
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Moderator
8/13/2014 | 8:13:34 PM
Re: Robots raise the bar
@Shane, I also would not be happy with paying a robot fee. I think that would be totally unreasonable. I sure hope that they would not expect that. I rather tip a human than pay a robot fee.
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Moderator
8/13/2014 | 8:09:15 PM
Re: Robots raise the bar
@Thomas C., Re: "Brian McGuinness, global brand leader for Starwood's Specialty Select Brands, said in a statement -- half-serious it seems -- that hiring for the position was a challenge because the company wanted someone who could work around the clock." It is disheartening, because there are many humans that are desperate for employment. There are many people looking for work and would be willing to work the 2nd and 3rd shifts as well.
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Moderator
8/13/2014 | 8:03:40 PM
Re: Robots raise the bar
Re: "It's a way to empower the staff to take on a bit more," said Cousins. "It allows the desk staff to multitask." I think that is the problem. The robot is not being utilized to lighten the load for the staff, but to permit them to take on more than they are already doing. I highly doubt the staff will get a boost in their salary for taking on more tasks and for their increase in multi-tasking. I think it's a common trend for downsizing the human employees to be replaced by robots/machines or just dispersing the responsibilities of newly retired or laid off employees onto already over burdened employees for low wages. I recall when I was given the workload of an employee that was fired, an employee that died, and the load of a vacant position, which was all thrown on top of my current job functions. My salary was not increased either. I didn't get paid for overtime either. There was no way out, until I found another job elsewhere. Employers have us by the jugular, because they know it's a hard time to get another job, a hard time to quit without another job lined up, so they take advantage and milk us dry.
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Moderator
8/13/2014 | 7:53:22 PM
Re: Robots raise the bar
@Laurianne, I guess it might be cute to see a robot dance, but I think I would prefer a human to do a dance and deliver my towels or midnight snack.
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Moderator
8/13/2014 | 7:50:17 PM
Re: Robots raise the bar
Part of me thinks that having a robot butler is pretty cool, but on the other hand I am not wild about it. Despite my interest in experiencing having a robot butler cater to me at least once, I have my reservations about rolling out this service.I am not totally convinced that these robot butlers won't threaten the jobs typically allocated for humans. Plus, I think it is impersonal and is another step in making us lack in the skill of interpersonal skills on a face to face basis.
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
8/13/2014 | 5:11:52 PM
Re: Robots raise the bar
I agree that robots won't provide that warmth and personality, and people will be indispensible in those hospitality roles. But a lot of times we would rather not deal with a person. It's 11 pm at a hotel, I'm in my PJs about to go to bed and see I've forgotten my toothpaste. If a robot could drop that right off, I could do without the friendly smile.
<<   <   Page 2 / 3   >   >>
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