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8/13/2014
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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
8/20/2014 | 7:44:48 AM
Re: Dehumanising of the "Experience"
I'm not going to pick on anyone who can't figure out a self-checkout scanner but I think a large part of the problem is comfort with that process.  I have no problem with them, even my kids can use them with high success rates.  There are people though that will be frustrated that things are not being done for them and any error is going to get hard for them to get over.  I think the longer the self service parts are there and the more people interact with them we'll see that need for human interaction drop.  Think about ATMs and pay at the pump gas stations.  I haven't gone into a gas station to pay for years.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Ninja
8/20/2014 | 4:09:39 AM
Re: What interaction?
SusanN, 

"I even take a moment to write a nice note for the housekeeper with my daily tip thanking her/him for the day's service."

But you are super nice. :) 

I didn't mean to say not to interact with all service people at hotels if you have the chance to see them. But you rarely see them. Although with your example now we see that it's not necessary to see them to interact with them. Again, you are super nice. :D

-SusanF
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
8/19/2014 | 3:23:34 PM
Re: What interaction?
@susanf, @Angelfuego: I do try to interact with all service people at hotels, they can be really valuable sources of information about the local area and are typically delighted to be spoken to as fellow humans rather than treated as invisible service genies. I even take a moment to write a nice note for the housekeeper with my daily tip thanking her/him for the day's service.
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
8/19/2014 | 3:19:58 PM
Re: Dehumanising of the "Experience"
@SaneIT: Having tried self-checkout at many supermarkets and always always seen someone require human intervention, and witnessed people completely flummoxed at transit pass vending machines, I can attest that human interaction is still needed for even the most basic transactions. I fear we may be giving humans more credit than we deserve at this point -- the weak link in human/machine interaction may not be the machines...
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
8/19/2014 | 3:16:47 PM
Re: Robots raise the bar
@Whoopty: while the geek in me loves the idea of having a robot deliver room servce, the human in me despairs for what this will mean to folks who have relied on these kinds of jobs in order to earn a living. The latter wins in my view, so I'd much rather see humans delivering room service. Then again, since most hotels charge a ridiculous amount for room service ($13 bagels, anyone?) I rarely order it anyway, so I'm not really helping am i?
Alison_Diana
IW Pick
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
8/18/2014 | 3:29:36 PM
Re: Dehumanising of the "Experience"
That's a really good point and an important one, as technological capabilities improve and organizations look for new ways to cut costs. Part of the fun of travel is meeting new people, not necessarily robots, and the one-time novelty might be fun but wouldn't you rather have a short, pleasant relationship with hotel staff? Having just returned from vacation at a hotel we visit often, i enjoy seeing the same faces behind the front desk and in the coffee room. Not sure a robot would generate that feeling.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
8/18/2014 | 7:26:38 AM
Re: Dehumanising of the "Experience"
@ Shane,

 

I think you fall into the opinion that most people will have.  Transactional experiences may as well be machine based for us because quite often we're not looking for a bond with the person on the other side of the counter.  The medical part I can understand, things get personal when needles are coming at you but I guess I can turn that off.  I think there will always be a need for humans in the medical fields though because I don't think anyone wants a machine telling them they have 2 months to live after a cancer diagnosis for example.  There are some areas where we need a softer touch.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Ninja
8/18/2014 | 3:31:02 AM
What interaction?
Angelfuego,

"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."

I doubt anyone interacts too much with the person who delivers clean towels to their room. There is no interaction, or face to face anything with them. 

-Susan

 

 
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Ninja
8/17/2014 | 2:46:55 AM
Adorable
How nice, Thomas. :)

If I lived in Cupertino I would pay a visit to the Aloft Hotel just to see A.L.O. in action.

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

No doubt about it. I can just imagine how adorable A.L.O. would look doing a little dance. :D

In the future, having a model with arms could allow A.L.O. to load the items into its cargo space itself, becoming more independent from hotel staff. Allowing video chat between A.L.O. and the front desk would be a good add, too, something like the robots in healthcare already do when visiting patients allowing them to speak with their doctor through video chat.

The idea of implementing a service robot in the hotel chain is good. The unit chosen seems to be quite basic, though probably enough for what it is expected to do. 

All in all, an adorable idea. :) 

-Susan
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
8/15/2014 | 10:49:24 AM
Re: Dehumanising of the "Experience"
I'm with SaneIT. I don't need the human touch when I'm processing and verifying information -- hotel check in, food pick up etc. These are rarely meaningful exchanges so automating parts of the service industry doesn't feel dehumanizing to me. That said, I'm never letting a robot put a needle in my arm. I don't even want a human putting a needle in my arm, but if it's got be done I want human.
Page 1 / 3   >   >>
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