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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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Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
8/13/2014 | 11:12:42 AM
The Botler did it
If it can shorten wait times for guests, great. I love that it is programmed to do a little dance. But will a robot fee be far behind the resort fee? Let's hope not :)
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
8/13/2014 | 1:05:29 PM
Re: The Botler did it
I wouldn't be happy with the hotel if they added a robot fee in the fine print for R2D2 to deliver me towels or soap. But as robots become more sophisticated, a robot fee could be added to the price of the room.

As for hotel workers thinking Botler is "cute." Will it still be cute when a model can deliver room service food or vacuum hallways and rooms? That's encroaching on human worker territory.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
8/13/2014 | 4:30:17 PM
Re: The Botler did it
I expect the automation of labor will be like the proverbial frog in boiling water: It will happen so gradually no one will noticed until it's too late.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
8/13/2014 | 4:43:11 PM
Re: The Botler did it
Cousins insisted that his company worked hard to keep costs down, which helps explain the bot's limited functionality. It will be interesting to see whether hotel bots get obvious security functionality as well -- seems like they should have always-on cameras piped to a security manager.
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
8/13/2014 | 11:15:14 AM
Robots raise the bar
I don't see robots replacing all humans in any particular field, as I think it will be a long, long time before the professional courtersy and warmth of another human being can be achieved by a robot. Chances are they will replace the less skilled and certainly less desireable positions though, so I can see workers everywhere having to step their game up to make it so that the job they do is better than a robot. 

Essentially, the job market is going to get a lot more saturated. 
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.
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.
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 | 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 | 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 | 8:13:34 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.
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.
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_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 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 | 3:16:47 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?
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
8/13/2014 | 11:22:39 AM
I'm in favor of room service that doesn't require a tip
I never know whether it's appropriate to tip the guy who comes up to my room to replenish some supply that should have been there in the first place, so I usually don't. A robot would save me the doubt and guilt. I might be able to spare a hashtag if the service comes quickly.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
8/13/2014 | 2:33:54 PM
Re: I'm in favor of room service that doesn't require a tip
There are hotels in NY that use robot systems to stow guest luggage already. That means fewer bellmen/porters. No question about it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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_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...
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.
Alison_Diana
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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.
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
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