I Robot? No, iConcierge

If it is true that the robotic industry appears to be one of the sectors linked to the most expanding technology, it is also true that among the potential areas in which it can find application there is certainly the world of the hotelier.

What are the most important innovations in this area? What kind of robotic services should we expect from the hotels of the future? We've tried to find out for you.

If robots are actually going to replace us, as expected by so much science fiction, it is likely that they will start in the hotel industry: according to the magazine Hospitality Tech, 22% of hotels specifically asked for a study on the subject said they were very interested in the implementation of robotic assistants, within their facilities, especially as the investment required does not seem to exceed £ 30,000 per machine.

In June 2015 Marriot had shown Mario, the first humanoid robot of a European hotel presented at the headquarters in Ghent, Belgium, designed by the Belgian company QBMT and able to check in in 19 different languages.

And even before that, in 2013 the Chinese hotel Pengheng Space Capsules, located in the Bao'an district of Shenzhen, had been among the forerunners in the use of robots for less qualified and more repetitive tasks - such as reception, security and room service - with a considerable reduction in costs and therefore in the prices charged to customers, and a consequent push to the artificial intelligence market. The extremely reduced accommodation, not surprisingly called "capsules", minimalist and futuristic at the same time, cost about 70 yuan, just over £ 7 per day.

And it is precisely in the direction of a "robotic" replacement of the most mechanical and impersonal services, such as accompanying guests to their own rooms, that the hotel sector is moving, in terms of the design and use of butlers, waitresses, robots and android translators: according to a recent McKinsey study, almost half of the working hours of hotel staff are dedicated to repetitive and predictable activities, 94% of which can easily be automated.

Far from wanting to completely eliminate the human presence, the tendency seems to be that of reducing it and, if anything, specializing it in tasks that are recognized as more valuable.

A butler robot

Californian company Savioke recently presented a robotic concierge that deserved the award as Most Innovative Hospitality Technology at the TechOvation Awards 2016 organized by Hotel Technology Next Generation. Botlr, which at first glance resembles a satin-brushed dustbin on wheels, is able to deliver, after prior notice, towels, toothbrush and coffee to guests in several rooms of the Aloft chain. Otherwise, it "rests" in its charging station until further notice.

The same robot - whose name was initially supposed to be Relay - is also used at the Crowne Plaza San Jose Hotel, in the InterContinental chain, where it takes the name of Dash but maintains almost the same tasks: in its height of about 45 kg, it moves at a walking pace to essentially deliver to guests in the hotel's three hundred rooms, avoiding obstacles and calling lifts via Wi-Fi - although it is able to move independently, based on a pre-generated map, eliminating the problems of Wi-Fi or LTE signal loss.

In the last three months, two of these same concierge-robes have also been "hired" at the Renaissance Hotel in Las Vegas, with the same task of assisting the human concierge in the services offered. It is clear, in short, that three years after their first insertion, the approximately 70 Savioke robots scattered around the world, can be said to be well beyond the pilot phase, ready to expand their functionality beyond the mere activity of delivery.

From this year, for example, robots will have the ability to patrol a hotel to search for areas with poor Wi-Fi reception and report it directly to IT, in an effort to address one of the most frequent complaints from guests. And - a much more difficult challenge - Savioke is working to equip his robotic assistants also with a "mingle" function, thanks to which they will be able to interact with the guests telling jokes and making jokes.

The collaboration between Hilton and IBM has, instead, led to the design of Connie, a version of the Nao robot that is more intelligent than the humanoid created in 2004 by the French company Aldebaran Robotics and now acquired by the Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank Group Corporation. So named in honor of founder Conrad Hilton, it has undergone the implementation of Watson's software, which improves its ability to understand human language, and an Internet connection that makes it capable of interfacing with the WayBlazer travel platform.

At the small android it will be possible to ask for information on the check-out or opening times of the museums, on the best restaurants in the area, or on the location of the hotel spa. A targeted use of cognitive technology that simplifies the management of the daily needs of the guests, so that the staff can devote themselves more easily to the particular ones.

For the moment it is still unthinkable that these robots can completely replace their human colleagues but, since they are able to adapt and improve their performance through a kind of real learning, it seems rather close to the possibility that they can do independently at least check in and check out.

Technology recognizes us

Therefore, far away from the occidental world, the robot Nao had already made his "hotel" debut, inside two structures of the Henn na Hotel chain (which literally means "evolved hotel"): The first is located inside an amusement park, in Sasebo, Nagasaki prefecture, the other in Urayasu, Chiba prefecture, both run almost entirely by humanoid robots or with dinosaur features, designed by IBM or Osaka University, and manufactured by Kokoro studio.

Used not only for room deliveries, automatic check-out, porterage services, cleaning and reception management, these robots are also equipped with an innovative facial recognition system that allows guests to enter and exit their room without the need for keys, to leave them the independent management of lighting, and the reorganization of the wardrobe, thanks to the presence of a robotic arm that is able to place the personal belongings of customers in boxes.

This efficiency is also applied in terms of energy saving and, more generally, in the management of structures, thanks to the avant-garde combination of artificial intelligence and augmented reality: television and mini-bars have been replaced by tablets in every room, and air conditioners by high-tech radiant panels that ensure each guest the ideal microclimate in every season.

In the rooms of the Urayasu headquarters, among other things, there is also Tapia, the personal robotic assistant designed by MJI Robotics and able to connect to various other devices, to give information or remember appointments.

Starting from Easter 2018, an anthropomorphic robot will welcome guests at the Parc Hotel in Peschiera, on Lake Garda. Bepi Pepper, this is probably the name he will be given, will be behind the reception desk, perfectly able to check in, recognise customers, answer their questions and provide information. The android, produced by Aldebaran Robotics for Softbank, was designed to have remarkable guest interaction capabilities, also thanks to the fruitful collaboration with IBM and its Watson artificial intelligence software.

Meanwhile, the world of wellness and fitness is also pursuing an increasingly automated path for physical training. More and more efficient and innovative solutions that will allow personalized and customized experiences. Imagine a tool that adapts to the measurements and needs of your body, just a moment before you start the exercise....

In order to analyze the consequences of an automation of this magnitude in the field of tourism, and therefore all the organizational and image improvements generated by its introduction, the University Ca' Foscari of Venice has set up a research project involving the Department of Management and the Ciset (International Centre for Studies on the Tourism Economy).

Of course, the inevitable diversion of a large part of human resources towards more complex, gratifying and interrelated tasks seems, in turn, to be destined, just like technological progress, to increase the added value of every hotel structure.

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