Alibaba A.I. Labs, which develops Alibaba Group’s consumer AI products, said it will introduce a robot for the hospitality sector, making it the latest in a series of hotel-specific robots that make deliveries to guests in order to free up human staff for more complicated tasks.
The Alibaba robot will be deployed in October to deliver food and laundry to hotel guests, but the announcement did not specify where exactly. Guests can place orders via the Tmall Genie speaker or a tablet. When the robot arrives with a drink order, it flips open its top and a can pops up. (It was not immediately clear how food and laundry arrive.)
The robot is slightly under one meter (about 3.3 feet) tall and moves at a speed of up to one meter per second (about 2.3 miles per hour). It houses a semantic map, an autonomous navigation system to identify and dodge obstacles, a communications system to control elevators and facial recognition technology for ID verification.
Guests can interact with the robot using voice commands, as well as touch and hand gestures.
Responses are powered by Alibaba’s personal assistant, AliGenie.
After the trial, A.I. Labs said it will determine whether it’s suitable for hospitals, restaurants and offices.
“We are excited by this tremendous development that is helping us bridge the gap between guest needs and the response time that they expect. Alibaba A.I. Labs’ robot is the next step in the evolution towards smart hotels,” said Chen Lijuan, general manager of Alibaba A.I. Labs, in a statement.
Hospitality is one of the first industries to really embrace robots in customer-facing roles, but they are also in use in sectors like healthcare, agriculture and logistics.
In 2016, Hilton said it was teaming up with IBM to test a Watson-enabled robot concierge called Connie in a McLean, Va., hotel. Connie was supposed to provide guests with information about local attractions, dining options and hotel amenities—and was intended to work alongside human staff to enhance the guest experience. However, a rep for Hilton said Connie has not been operational since 2016 and she did not have additional information.
Service company Savioke introduced its robot, Relay, in 2014. It is used by hotel brands like Aloft, Crowne Plaza, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hyatt Place, Residence Inn, Sheraton and Westin in select locations. A rep said these hotels use Relay to deliver items like food, drinks, electronics, balloons and flowers to guest rooms. (Earlier this month, Savioke said it raised additional Series B capital to further expand into healthcare, as Relay can deliver medication and specimens within hospitals and free up nurses and technicians for other tasks.)
And then there’s Japan’s Hen Na Hotel, which opened in 2015 and calls itself the world’s first hotel staffed by robots. The 72-room hotel includes three robot receptionists that speak Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean, an in-room robot that can turn off lights, give weather updates and set alarms, and robotic arm in the cloakroom for luggage storage. The hotel also boasts a facial recognition system in which guests can opt to use their faces as room keys.
In a 2017 study of robots in hotels in China, Rohit Verma, a professor at the Hotel School at the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell, and Lina Zhong, assistant professor at the School of Tourism Management at Beijing International Studies University, found hotel guests were reasonably satisfied with robots—with virtually all participants rating hotel robots four out of a five-point scale.
The hotel guests skewed younger—between 18 and 30—and the survey found they had high expectations for robots, including better experiences and more customized services. They also expected robots to handle more tasks, including delivering food and goods, checking in and out and providing travel information and recommendations.
Overall, respondents found hotel robots to be responsive, and they liked the idea that the robot could talk to them—although some worried about what robot cameras mean for privacy.
In addition, the study found nearly half of guests who stayed in robot rooms were open to the idea of purchasing their own robot-supported devices.
Verma and Zhong interviewed hotel managers who said they saw robots as something of a publicity stunt and while they didn’t see improved profit margins, kids seemed to like them. They also expect that installing robots as AI will continue to be a growing trend for future development.
The study proposed an acceptance model for hotel guests to embrace robots, which included: perceived adaptability of the robot; anxiety regarding, familiarity with and use of technology; perceived cost of the room; social influence and presence; perceived usefulness, ease of use and enjoyment of a robot; attitude toward robots; and intention to use the robot.
Robotics industry nonprofit the International Federation of Robotics (IRF) found sales in service robots will increase by an average growth rate of 20 to 25 percent from 2018 to 2020—and the total sales forecast for service robots in that period is about $27 billion.
In a statement, Martin Hägele of IFR Service Robot Group said growing interest in the sector is partially due to the number of new startups, as well as to large companies increasingly investing in robotics.