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3/10/2016
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IBM Watson Powers Hilton Robot Concierge

A Hilton hotel in McLean, Virginia, has deployed a Watson-powered robot named Connie to help answer basic travel questions.

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Conrad Hilton, the late founder of the Hilton hotel chain, has a new namesake, a pint-sized robot called Connie.

Hilton Worldwide and IBM on Wednesday said that the two companies are collaborating to develop a concierge robot that taps the machine intelligence of IBM's Watson and WayBlazer, a Watson ecosystem partner specializing in travel.

Connie, now being tested as an automated concierge at Hilton McLean in Virginia, can call upon various Watson APIs -- Dialog, Speech to Text, Text to Speech, and Natural Language Classifier -- and WayBlazer's travel-specific knowledge to answer questions from Hilton guests about nearby attractions, dining options, and hotel services.

The job of concierge was rated "not computerizable" by a 2013 Oxford study titled "The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?" and given only a 21% chance of being automated in the next 20 years.

(Image: Hilton Worldwide)

Angela Shen-Hsieh, offering manager for IBM Watson, describes Connie as an experiment to learn more about how people interact with robots. "The metric we're trying to strive for is around customer engagement and customer satisfaction," she said in a phone interview. "We're not looking for metrics related to productivity or replacing people."

Jonathan Wilson, VP product innovation and brand services for Hilton Worldwide, in an email said Hilton staff view Connie as a colleague. "Connie is able to handle the questions that require extensive research, which frees up our hotel concierge to have personable interactions with our guests," said Wilson. "Because of this, our team members view Connie as the perfect addition to the team since, together, they can provide guests with an enhanced and personalized stay."

Automation may seem to be at odds with traditional notions of hospitality, but as Jim Holthouser, EVP of global brands, describes the project in an explanatory video, Connie represents an opportunity "to delight customers in ways they don't expect." He characterizes the pilot test as a way to stand out and innovate in a crowded industry.

Robots still stand out in the hotel business, but perhaps not for long. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide has been testing room service robots in its Aloft Hotels since 2014. Japan's Henn-na Hotel takes the concept further still with eerie humanoid robot attendants, alongside smaller, friendlier models similar to Connie. New York's Yotel has a robotic arm that stores luggage for guests.

Within a few years, robots could be common enough in public spaces that they no longer merit mention. But even if ubiquity dims their promotional luster, they should still have value as a way to support hotel staff.

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At the Aloft hotel chain, the "Botlr" robot deployed at the Cupertino, Calif., location was so well received that the company added a second robot at Aloft Silicon Valley.

"Botlr has certainly helped to free up our front desk associates' time, and our guests also love seeing Botlr at their door when it makes a delivery to their room," said Brian McGuinness, global brand leader for specialty select brands at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, in an email. "It also allows our staff to offer more personalized attention to our guests' needs. Overall, Botlr has been a huge success and has led us to continue to test out new innovations and technologies in our hotels around the world."

Hilton and IBM expect Connie will learn on the job, becoming more proficient at offering recommendations as more guests seek assistance.

Shen-Hsieh said that in the future Connie may be augmented with Watson services designed to pick up on guests' emotional cues and body language. "In the Watson suite of services, we have tone analyzer and vision capabilities that we can use," she said. "Connie doesn't do this right now, but this is one of the next steps we're looking at."

Whether or not Connie proves more helpful than a directory that displays nearby dining and entertainment options or the multitude of recommendations accessible through a smartphone, Hilton's robot concierge is expected to provide data that can help hotel managers: records of the questions posed by guests.

"You could see this as a way of capturing information that otherwise is stuck in the heads of desk attendants and concierges," said Shen-Hsieh.

Wilson offered an example of how this information might prove useful. "If we learn the majority of guests arriving on property ask the same question, we could look to deliver the information guests need via a pre-arrival email," he explained. "Improvements like this, coupled with Connie's ability to handle guests' more in-depth questions that involve data and time-consuming research, will free up our team members to have more personable interactions with our guests that truly personalize a trip."

Connie, a customer-facing front-end for Watson, is represented in the physical world by a 23-inch NAO robot from SoftBank's Aldebaran. Shen-Hsieh said IBM is also looking Aldebaran's four-foot Pepper model for possible use.

"This is a really interesting opportunity to test and deliver this new cognitive experience," said Shen-Hsieh. "From our Jeopardy days, there are certain impressions about what Watson is and what it does. This is an opportunity to really broaden that perception through higher fidelity interaction."

Wilson says guests are eager to be part of the learning process. "Since Connie is the world's first robot concierge powered by Watson and guests are not expecting to see it, they view the experience as an added bonus -- almost like entertainment," he said.

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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Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
3/10/2016 | 9:21:02 PM
Watson knows a lot, but....
Connie sounds like a daring experiment. If you ask for spare ribs (with a pained expression), will you get a restaurant recommendation or a prosthetic device?
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