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Rise of the machines: Robots could be staffing hotels by 2020

By Sophie Witts , 09-Mar-2016
Last updated on 09-Mar-2016 at 17:52 GMT2016-03-09T17:52:07Z

Rise of the machines: Robots could be staffing hotels by 2020

Robot butlers and bartenders could be staffing hotels by 2020 as consumers become increasingly open to the idea, according to new research.

A survey of 6,000 travellers from Europe, Asia and North America by Travelzoo found that almost two thirds would be comfortable with artificial intelligence being used in the travel industry in the next five years.

Robots are seen as being more efficient, better at dealing with different languages and handling data than their human counterparts, the study found.

Richard Singer, Travelzoo’s European President, said: “Right now is a very exciting moment in the history of the travel industry – groundbreaking technology is revolutionising what is possible from the perspective of customer service, entertainment and personalisation.

“Robots and artificial intelligence are making their debut on the tourism stage, and our research into global acceptance of robots working in the travel industry is largely positive.”

Human-cyborg relations

Robots are already making their mark in the hospitality industry. In 2014 Starwood hired a robot butler – Botlr – to work back and front-of-house across its hotels in the United States.

Last year InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG) trialled delivery robot Dash at its Crowne Plaza hotel in Silicon Valley. The three foot tall machine - which delivers snacks, toothbrushes and other amenities to guests rooms - travels at walking pace and can navigate floors by using the Wi-Fi to call lifts.

But despite the novelty of mechanical staff Singer said that consumers preferred the idea of robots and humans working in tandem rather than a hotel run entirely by machines.

“Consumers still want humans in the picture, as otherwise there is a genuine fear that cultural nuances, humour and irony will be missed and the holiday experience could become too impersonal,” he said.

Dash working at the Crowne Plaza in California

“If we don’t respect the desire for the human touch, we risk ‘robophobia’ setting in, when in fact technology can significantly improve the holiday experience when used appropriately.”

Though nearly 80 per cent of those surveyed expect robots to be a big part of their lives by 2020, some nationalities are more hesitant than others.

German and French respondents were the most wary of artificial intelligence being used in hospitality or travel, while 92 per cent of Chinese were comfortable with the idea.

Japanese vision

In Japan technology giant Toshiba has created three human-like ‘communication androids’, two of which are already being used in Tokyo in a hotel reception and a shopping mall.

The company will showcase Chihira Kanae – one of the world’s most human-looking robots – at the ITB travel trade show in Berlin this week (11 March).

Hitoshi Tokuda, chief specialist at Toshiba’s research and development division said, “Chihira Kanae is a taste of things to come – we look forward to working with the travel industry to refine her, so that she can enable better holiday experiences for consumers.”

Robo-restaurant

It's not just hotels that could be facing a Terminator-style takeover. A report by Swiss hotel academy the École hôtelière de Lausanne has predicted that virtual reality restaurants, robot chefs and voice-recognition technology in coffee machines could all be in place by 2025.