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Meet your new robot coworker

Hotel bars are great places for people watching, seldom places for engaging conversation. But, there’s an exception to every rule. I recently found myself sitting atop a tall stool in a city far from home, deep in conversation with a woman, like me, traveling for work. She, a hospitality professional in town to train a new cohort of hotel associates; me, in town for a tech conference. So, naturally, our conversation landed on the intersection of our specialities—the increasing use of technology in the hospitality industry.

“I don’t think the hospitality industry will become overtaken by technology—people want a human touch when they’re traveling,” I said confidently, and perhaps naively, to my newfound friend.

She explained that, while in some places that’s true (the closer to the water the more personal the experience needs to be, I learned), hotels are becoming more heavily outfitted with tech. I wasn’t convinced quite yet…

Fast forward twelve hours and I’m in the audience at Collision listening to a panel discuss the future of our workplaces—a panel composed of 50 percent humans

Meet Relay, your lovable room-service-delivering robot

The panel members began moving down the line with introductions. As soon as Tessa Lau, CTO at Savioke, introduced herself and her robot friend, Relay, all of my thoughts about tech in hotels were washed to the wayside.

Savioke produces robots specifically engineered for the service industry—offices, restaurants, hospitals, and yes, even hotels. In fact, Relay has already made his (her? its?) debut in Silicon Valley’s Aloft hotels, where it acts as a personal butler for hotel workers and guests.

“The heart of hospitality is understanding what people want and creating an experience around that,” said Lau. “What robots can do is make elements of that experience more predictable.” In other words, people want pizza at midnight, and they want it now. Robots can help hotel staff increase the efficiency of their service and make the delivery timeline more transparent for hotel guests. Instead of blindly waiting until 2:00 AM for their one-topping masterpiece, guests receive an accurate time estimate for their delivery.

“The heart of hospitality is understanding what people want and creating an experience around that. What robots can do is make elements of that experience more predictable.” - Tessa Lau

Still skeptical? Imagine arriving at your hotel after a long day of traveling. Your flight was delayed, your luggage was lost, your hotel room wasn’t ready when you arrived, and you haven’t eaten since breakfast. Then your room service meal takes ten years to arrive and you have to answer your hotel room door (wearing your makeshift pajamas) to exchange pleasantries with an unfamiliar and chatty guy named Steven.

Now picture this: after a long day of traveling you realize you forgot your toothbrush and you’re famished. Instead of walking all the way down to the front desk and waiting an hour for a hotel employee to bring your food to your door, a cute little robot arrives promptly with your items. All you have to do is open the lid, grab your (still hot) meal and toothbrush, and return to the couch to finish your episode of House of Cards.

Of course, Relay and his team of R2-D2 look-alikes don’t work alone—they need their human counterparts to function like a well-oiled machine (sorry, I had to). Relay is the go-between across human functions: he navigates to the kitchen or front desk, picks up food or toiletries from hotel associates, then brings the items to hotel guests in their rooms. Relay doesn’t eliminate humans—

Relay [the robot] doesn’t eliminate humans—he helps humans do their jobs better.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Savioke founder and CEO Steve Cousins emphasized this notion. “[A robot] is cost effective; but more importantly, it helps the person at the front desk multitask in a real way,” said Cousins. Guests don’t need to wait for a toothbrush because the front desk attendant is busy with a line of people checking in. The person at the front desk only needs 15 seconds to grab a toothbrush, and then Relay is on his way.

Fetch takes the wear and tear out of warehouse picking

Also on the panel sat Melonee Wise, CEO, Fetch Robotics. Like Savioke, Fetch creates robots that fulfill traditionally human roles—this time, they’re warehouse pickers. You, I’m sure, have benefitted from the work of a warehouse picker—they’re the individuals who receive your online order, grab your item from the shelf, and bring it back to a central space for packaging. As you might imagine, thanks to the Amazon effect, warehouses pickers are in high demand—many companies are offering above-average wages and compressed working hours in attempts to lure in students, parents, and retirees, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But the conditions in warehouses are famously unsafe. With a skyrocketing number of e-commerce orders and not enough hands, warehouse managers have high (read: unrealistic) expectations for employees, In a Mother Jones exposé, Mac McCelland reported being advised to take 800 milligrams of Advil per day to combat the physical pain brought on by the job.

The understaffing and unsafe conditions of warehouses led Wise to devise a solution that takes humans out the equation (for the most part). Enter, Fetch and Freight. Fetch has maneuverable “hands” that allow it to pick items off the shelf while Freight, it’s noble sidekick, is a self-moving platform that runs items from the shelving space to the packaging center.

Melonee Wise recognizes that robot coworkers can take a while to warm up to. She shared that, oftentimes, warehouse employees are highly skeptical about working alongside someone without a beating heart, but quickly come around. “They have a positive reaction within the first week,” said Wise. “We know they love them because they name them Batman and Superman instead of Tom or George.” And it goes without saying, but robots don’t need Advil for aching muscles.

Human enough… but not too human

Of course, not every machine is seen as a superhero in the eyes of its human counterpart. The secret ingredient to approval? Human qualities. Turns out, we want our robot deskmates to look and act like us... The “uncanny valley” theory, coined in the 1970’s by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, hypothesizes that humans will have more affinity for robots the more they look like humans; however, after a certain point of human likeness, our affinity for the robot plummets.

Theory is great, but what does this mean in the real world? Here’s an example for you. Shopping malls in my neighborhood recently introduced SoftBank robots in hopes of making the shopping experience more joyful: the bots dance, play games, speak a number of languages, and collect survey data about patrons’ shopping experiences. When I go to the mall and see “Pepper”—human-shaped, but still obviously mechanical—greeting me at the door, I smile. It’s cute, it’s helpful, I can live with it. If that little guy closely resembled a human—with soft flesh, glass eyes, and nimble fingers—I would absolutely start running the other direction. That's just plain creepy. On the other hand, if the bot looked too much like a machine, I probably wouldn’t be naturally inclined to interact with it.

When I go to the mall and see “Pepper”—human-shaped, but still obviously mechanical—greeting me at the door, I smile. It’s cute, it’s helpful, I can live with it.

Savioke’s bot, Relay, seems to expertly balance these extremes as well, clearly built with the uncanny valley theory in mind. Back at Collision, Tessa Lau shared that in order for Relay to be successful and accepted in the hotel environment, he needs to be “lovable.” Lau shared that this sentiment is evoked by Relay’s human qualities: blinking, vocal responses, and an arc below his screen to resemble a smile. These features help Savioke bots operate in hostile environments, like delivering to drunks and screaming kids (this is also safer for the human staff). Understandably, people have a harder time

Where do we draw the line?

As robots become more and more human, one question looms overhead, a question we all have likely paused on at least once: Technology is great and all, but are robots going to steal our jobs? All of the panel members agreed that while this is a valid concern, there can be restrictions to prevent interruption of our paychecks.

From their perspective, it all comes down to control. Rodolphe Gelin, Chief Scientific Officer at SoftBank Robotics, cautioned against getting carried away with the roles we transition over to robots. “You have to be careful in the position you give your robot,” he said. “You can use them to provide a service that wasn’t already there, or to assist.” Both Lau and Wise were in agreement. “In all of these environments, robots are working with people, not replacing them,” said Wise. “They’re taking the jobs that humans don’t want.”

The same goes for the robots at Savioke. Relay is meant to work in conjunction with people—someone opens Relay’s top lid and puts the food in and another takes it out. There’s still people on either end of the equation, the robot is simply linking them, taking friction and unpredictability out of the equation.

So, in a way, I was right: In the service industry (and workplaces of all shapes and sizes, for that matter), there will always be people. But it won’t just be people. There is the possibility of peaceful coexistence, so long as we establish our boundaries. But if the bots overtake us... then they’re officially uninvited to happy hour.