The Henn-na Hotel in Japan just got more futuristic. Walking up to the front desk, customers are greeted with the familiar bow and the typical “Welcome” spiel from a typical Japanese woman. The catch: she’s a robot. Henn-na means either “flower” or “it’s weird,” depending on your interpretation. This new development, however, isn’t so surprising. Service bots and AI are used to help customers in retail stores like Lowe’s. Why shouldn’t they help guests check into a room? Though the integration of AI will continue to grow, it is not quite what people might expect. Furthermore, hospitality experts and engineers do recognize that customer satisfaction is key. To move forward with service bots and robots, hotels need to convince their guests it’s a good idea. So how does the future look?

The future is, no doubt, full of robots. When guests of the Henn-na Hotel enter the lobby, they are greeted by several receptionist robots, including my favorite—a velociraptor in a hat. These bots check guests in and send them off to their rooms. Human staff is always on call, but the company intends to make 90% of its operations automated. From porters to cleaners to whatever else Japan may think of, the hospitality industry is, in fact, already overrun with bots. The Henn-na Hotel, however, also features many other kinds of AI. Guests can open their door simply by using facial recognition software. They can use verbal cues to turn on lights.

Similarly, Carnegie Mellon has a Social Robots Project, which includes Roboceptioncist, “Tank.” He stands ready to greet guests and provide helpful information. It sounds pretty incredible—except the bot’s current skills include looking up weather forecasts and giving directions. Research has also found that the average interaction time with Tank’s predecessor was less than 30 seconds—meaning, the robot is basically as exciting as your phone sans Facebook. In reality, the end goal is to learn more about human-robot interaction and design robots that humans will enjoy interacting with. The industry will, of course, continue making great strides, but the interactivity and mobility of servicebots will be a long journey. While a human can recognize a series of different social and physical cues and determine how to act, robots act in highly constrained ways. They can tell you the weather, and answer simple questions, but they can’t deliver full and detailed interactions.

Boltr is a famous bot in the Aloft Cupertino hotel. He can deliver toothpaste to your room, and will request a tweet instead of a tip. Rather than replacing humans, Boltr does the busywork of running around the hotel. More importantly, the bot is known for being regularly asked to help take selfies. Botlr may be cute, but if customer’s favorite function is his ability to take selfies, we are certainly not living in the future. In order to properly implement robots who speak will be yet another hurdle. Language is complex. If you’ve ever been on hold and asked to “speak your account number,” or verbally “choose your option,” you’ve run into another wall holding back genuine interaction between bots and humans.

Where does AI really shine in the hospitality industry? That same hotel, Aloft Cupertino, is also looking to implement smart mirrors, smart carpets and AI-powered thermostat systems. In fact, what AI does best is not human interaction. The Hyatt Regency Riverfront in Jacksonville, Florida uses artificial intelligence system to better generate staffing schedules and forecast food and beverage needs. The Pan Pacific in San Fransisco was able to achieve highly accurate restaurant, room service and banquet forecasting, as well maintain appropriate staffing levels. Accuracy in these areas means hotels can spend less money, which is much more practical than a selfie-taking robot. Though customers are largely unaware of these behind-the-scenes uses of AI, this sector will, no doubt, continue to blossom.

There is also the final factor in AI’s usage: human perception of robots and the implementation of artificial intelligence. Have you ever been greeted by a humanoid-styled robot? It’s mildly terrifying. Frankly, even when something is well-designed, that does not mean customers will respond well. An interesting study published in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management studied customer responses to hotel attempts to “go green.” The results show us that people have very specific, very human needs. Much like Carnegie Mellon’s students trying to understand what makes a human happy to interact their Roboceptionist, hotels need to understand what makes their customers happy to be greeted by robots. This fabulous video from BBC of a journalist checking into the kooky Henn-na Hotel makes one thing very clear: people are not quite ready to take all servicebots seriously. Whether it’s a uniformed Japanese woman or a dinosaur in a hat, currently implemented robots are still very alien.

How do companies make the leap from gimmick to full-scale implementation? It’s all about the perception. The study in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management found that hotel customers were somehow mentally tipped off when a hotel was attempting to implement a new system because of ulterior motives. Guests felt skepticism and discomfort. They were not pleased and did not want to further invest in such hotels. However, when the hotel staff implemented the same system with no motive but the actual comfort of their guests, the visitor had an entirely different response. There was no skepticism or discomfort. The role of AI in hospitality will have to come in a similar fashion if it is to succeed. There will be a slow trickle from gimmicky and high-class hotels to the ordinary family vacation spot, and exactly what that means remains to be seen.

AI is already booming in the hospitality industry, though it isn’t always obvious. Friendly velociraptor receptionists are bound to cause a stir, but the overall use of AI and robots in hospitality might not be as striking as once thought—at least not yet.

image source: Henn-na Hotel

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