By Gregg Anderson
To start, a short blurb on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how it works.
There has been a lot of hype about the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and human-machine interfaces within the business environment. But, the nature of AI itself is not entirely new. In fact, Stanford researcher John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence” back in 1956 and defined the key mission of AI as a sub-field of computer science.
Essentially, artificial intelligence (AI) is the ability of a machine or a computer programme to think and learn. The basis of AI is the notion of creating machines capable of acting, thinking, and learning like human beings.
And lest not forget that we actually interact with AI daily. Take the search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, TripAdvisor, Yelp, etc., that presents us with results when we look for a good restaurant, rental car or hotel. All credit to AI or machine-learning, these search engines are not only able to process data at tremendous speed, but they can also “learn” how to provide us with more accurate results.
For the millions globally who have Alexa, Echo or Siri - personal assistants (PAs), it has become the norm to talk to these “gadgets” which recognise our speech, process requests and provide us with answers. Interestingly, (and somewhat scary) is that these PAs continuously learn about us that they reach the point whereby they can accurately anticipate users’ needs!
Some may say that it’s early days yet for the adoption of AI in the hospitality industry as emerging technologies do not appear to be slowing travel industry job growth — thus far. However, at a recent technology conference held in Toronto in 2017, Dave Berkus, angel investor with over 137 early-stage technology investments, predicted that by 2025 robots will be in rooms (e.g. deliver room service, clean, etc.,) and all over the industry properties themselves. On the positive side, this will create a need for a robot technology department i.e. create new jobs. So although AI/robots will eliminate jobs, it also creates new ones and this creative disruption has occurred in many industries.
To quote David Autor “I'm not yet convinced that we will face an unemployment problem created by AI. There will certainly be some occupations eliminated - drivers of vehicles, many production jobs, etc. Whether this creates mass unemployment depends on how quickly this happens. If it happens overnight, it will be a huge disruption.”
AI is becoming more ubiquitous in hospitality products from TravelClick’s Guest Messenger system, Avvio’s “Allora” an AI powered direct booking platform, Site 1001’s facilities management platform to a JBL clock radio by Harmon Audio that is powered by IBM’s Watson. Watson’s AI and voice recognition gives guests the ability to control room functions for their comfort.
Room service robots are already being trialed in certain U.S. hotels to do deliveries to guest rooms. For example, hotel staff take guests’ orders, load items into the robot ‘Relay’ which does deliveries around the property using onboard cameras, sensors and Wi-FI. Guests retrieve their items from Relay’s storage department once it reaches their door.
Routine jobs like housekeeping and maintenance could find staff being assisted by robots. AI and Automated Fault Detection and repair systems will also play a significant part in helping hotel maintenance teams be more efficient.
Debatably, robots could even be used as hotel porters. However, a person would probably (but not necessarily), still need to open doors and remove bags from the vehicle. Then a robot could take over – quickly carrying baggage to guests’ rooms. The Gitaoffer cargo vehicles give an alluring preview into this likelihood.
And what about the Front Desk - possibly the most importance human interface with guests and the first opportunity a hotel gets to formally greet and welcome its guests. Would guests prefer being greeted by a warm personal Caribbean smile or an uncaring, unfeeling humanoid? Surprisingly, many travelers prefer using mobile check-in services – content to forgo human interaction for a quicker trip to their room.
With a robot-staffed front desk, hotels could still provide a formal greeting for guests that want one, while simultaneously offering a faster check-in process. The idea certainly isn’t unique. Japan’s Henn-na hotel is staffed almost completely by robots, including a humanoid female and a dinosaur that welcome guests on arrival and do check-in/check-out services.
There are clear benefits to this approach. Machines are highly adept at handling repetitive, process-driven tasks. A sufficiently advanced front desk team could offer a much more efficient service than a human when dealing with room details and booking information.
But the job clearly needs other interpersonal skills besides administrative efficiency. Being greeted upon arrival with a genuine personal welcome can’t be artificially duplicated. Following what can at times be a long and tiring journey, a smiling face can be more effective at elating a guest’s temperament than a quick check in.
Ultimately, the front desk could be an area where humans and robots collaborate, satisfying the needs of all guests.
Notably, AI could prove to be very useful in the front desk role by providing language recognition and translation services. A new series of AI translators already shows promise in this arena. With ongoing progress in natural language abilities, a multilingual robot catering to foreign language guests would be very beneficial.
The role of the concierge could also be eventually automated. Since 2016, if you call the Concierge in Hilton Worldwide hotels “Connie” the first Watson-enabled robot is likely to give you dining recommendations, information about local tourist attractions as well as hotel amenities and features. And Connie learns through each interaction, honing its/her capability to make evenmore useful recommendations.
At luxury hotels (i.e. the five-star ones), although exclusivity includes having a staff member personally deliver and serve an in-room dining order as part of the experience, AI is being introduced to enhance guests’ experiences. Visualise entering your next hotel room and discovering everything exactly the way you like it, from the right lighting and ideal temperature, to your blinds opening automatically in the morning and your favorite music cued for your morning listening pleasure. These types of preset features, thanks to AI, are the next wave in coddling visitors. Chances are, if things are near perfect, you'll return more—and when you do, the more a hotel will know how to please you.
However, all guests might not appreciate this. Would guests staying at a luxury hotel accept a robot attending to their needs? Even if every fancy and demand was strictly catered for, the experience would still be missing the authentic care and attention only a human can give.
Despite continuing to make huge strides in terms of cognitive capabilities, AI remains patently impersonal. In fact, what AI does best is not human interaction.
Empathy and true emotion displays will always be valued human qualities – and these qualities haven’t been replicated within robotics — at least not yet.
Of course businesses should always strive to be more efficient, but there is no substitute for a fantastic Caribbean vacation without a huge dosage of emotive attachment.
Travel industry research shows that consumers see a combination of humans and robots working together in guest-facing roles as the preferred solution.
Visitors still want to interact with humans otherwise there is a dread that cultural nuances, laughter, socialising and irony will be absent and the holiday experience could become too soulless. If we disregard the need for human touch, then “robophobia” could arise and thwart the appropriate use of technology that could greatly improve visitors’ holiday experiences.
From the foregoing discussion, it is obvious that stakeholders must explore ways of implementing AI throughout the Caribbean. With large multinational hotel chains existing or being built in the region, it is inevitable that AI will be deployed in those hotels. Therefore, it is important that regional governments begin to position their destinations to exploit the benefits of AI to boost economic growth and job creation in their countries.
Certain roles e.g. housekeeping and maintenance seem destined for some type of automation. In these areas, robots and AI could be used to enhance operational efficiency, reduce staff costs and improve guests’ experiences.
Other jobs such as the front desk and concierge may involve an integration of roles. Tasks may be shared and allocated between humans and machines contingent on the particular skill set they have.
Ultimately, a machine can never replace the human touch. Therefore, the hospitality industry will almost definitely be one of partial automation.
However, it’s clear that as the technology continues to evolve, the hotel of the future is one where AI and humanoid robots will certainly play a progressively important role.