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Robot Room Service Delivers The Goods

If you welcome your new robot overlords, they may bring you toiletries.
DARPA Robotics Challenge Gears Up For Finale
DARPA Robotics Challenge Gears Up For Finale
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This is how the robots arrive, not with a bang but with a phone call to alert you to open the door of your hotel room.

Scott Sigrist, area director of sales for Tegile in Texas, recorded his first encounter with robot room service in early March at the Aloft Hotel in Newark, Calif. The video went viral and has racked up more than 424,000 views since it debuted, prompting calls from Reuters and a dozen or so video companies competing for monetization rights.

The video itself is not much to look at, at least in terms of the way Hollywood presents robots. Sigrist opens the door of his room to find what one YouTube commenter describes as an iPad glued to a trash can. The robot is what R2D2 might have looked like if Star Wars had been a student film.

[ What do you wish your robot could do? Read My Ideal Robot: 10 Must-Have Features. ]

The robot beeps plaintively and on its screen displays the words, "Hello. Here is your delivery." Then it coos, displays, "Please remove your items," and opens its lid to reveal a cavity containing a towel and toothpaste instead of a brain.

Sigrist complies and presses the touch screen to tell the robot he's taken the items he requested from the front desk.

The robot then solicits a rating. "How did I do?" it asks, presenting a row of five white stars.

Evidently satisfied, Sigrist selects the rightmost star in the row, turning all five yellow. A job well done, but not, for now, a job lost.

"It's not taking someone's job," said Sigrist in a phone interview with InformationWeek. "The person at the front desk would have to run those things up there."

That's what Steve Cousins, CEO of Savioke, the company that designed the robot, said in August, when the robot room service trial began at the Aloft in Cupertino, Calif. (The pilot program was subsequently expanded to include the Aloft in Newark.) The robot allows the hotel's human staff to multitask, Cousins explained.

Sigrist unwittingly provided evidence to that effect: In a subsequent video of a robot room service visit, he captured the voice of the desk clerk interacting with a different guest at the same time. With the help of the robot, one desk clerk served two hotel guests at one time.

Back to Sigrist's initial video: "Thanks!" the robot says on its display screen as it emits a satisfied tone. It then bids farewell and explains that it's heading to the lobby before rotating and rolling away.

The robot -- called A.L.O. by the hotel's owner, Starwood Hotels Group, and SaviOne by Savioke -- can get to the lobby on its own by navigating the hallways and calling for an elevator, thanks to its sensors, its navigation software, and the hotel's wireless network. Once downstairs again, it will return to its charging station to await further requests for items from guests.

In mid-March, Savioke announced the conclusion of the pilot test, noting that its robot had made more than 2,000 deliveries. Initially, it sent a human wrangler to accompany its robot, in case of unforeseen circumstances, but the robot has proven capable of handling itself without incident.

On Thursday, at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Savioke showed off an updated version of its robot, called Relay. The company says it plans to announce new partnerships, presumably with hotels, in the coming weeks.

Robots Are Our Friends

Robots have been widely employed in manufacturing for decades, and have found uses in space exploration and on military missions. For many years, they have appeared in various office and hospital settings as automated delivery devices. Yet, few civilians have actually encountered a robot outside of trade shows, promotional events, or entertainment exhibits -- settings where the parameters of interaction have been spelled out beforehand and a human overseer is present.

Robots, like other unfamiliar technology – Google Glass for example – can provoke a sense of unease. That may be because people don't know what to expect. It probably doesn't help that robots, and artificial intelligence in all forms, are often depicted in film and literature as malevolent (HAL 9000, anyone?).

Sigrist cited another possible reason for wariness: Concern about a robot service fee. Many hotels, like airlines, make a habit of charging guests for every possible amenity or convenience. He explained that he probably wouldn't have made use of A.L.O. had he not already been familiar with the hotel staff due to frequent stays. After a hotel employee helped him understand what to expect, he warmed to the idea.

Sigrist observed that this isn't his first encounter with a robot. In the mid-1990s he worked at GTE in Irving, Texas, where there was an automated mail delivery robot that followed a chemical trail. "It took up most of the elevator," he said.

One of the things about robot room service that appealed to Sigrist is that he didn't have to worry about tipping for service. It's not about being cheap, he said. It's more that tipping can be awkward: You don't know when a tip is expected, or what's appropriate, and you may not have enough cash or the right combination of bills. A robot removes the mental burden of a potentially uncomfortable social interaction.

"I travel a lot, and when I get into a room and there's something I need or forgot, that's a pain," Sigrist said. "Now you call down and you're waiting on somebody. If it's just a robot, I don't have to interact with anybody. It just seems easier to me."

A.L.O. doesn't talk, and that appears to be for the best. "If he talked to me, I'd want to be sure it's not like an automated phone service," Sigrist said.

During his stay, Sigrist said he met the robot's creator, Adrian Canoso, cofounder and design lead at Savioke.

"He was really pleased that people were using [the robot]," Sigrist said. "It was really neat to see someone who was really happy about what he built."

Sigrist said he enjoyed the experience of interacting with A.L.O., and that others who have seen his video and communicated with him about the robot seem to share his view. "Everyone loved how he blinked," he said. "They noticed that and it felt comforting."

Now that the novelty has worn off, Sigrist said he's not sure he needs those social reassurances. It's important now, because it's a new experience for people, he said. "But I probably won't worry about rating it in the future. What's to rate? It's a robot."

Yet, it's more than that. It's a service that guests find valuable. Sigrist said that if he were trying to choose between two hotels in an area, and knew that one had a service robot, that's where he'd go. How about you? Would a robot-in-residence influence your hotel decisions? Do you want to see robots used more widely for these sorts of customer interactions? Are you flat-out terrified that your personal AI will refuse to open the pod bay doors? Tell us all about it in the comments section below.

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