August 17, 2014

Silicon Valley hotel Aloft will test robot bellhop

Botlr is the latest among a new generation of robots - like Google’s self-driving car, Aetheon’s Tug hospital supply robot and Caddytrek's electric golf caddy - that are starting to walk or roll around the everyday world.

Think of it as the Terminator’s human-friendly sibling.

In a hotel lobby across the street from Apple’s corporate campus, a desk clerk places a razor in the bin of a 3-foot-high robot and taps in a room number on a display. The robot, “Botlr,” chirps an R2-D2-style acknowledgment and rolls off to an elevator and its final destination.

On Wednesday, the Aloft hotel here will begin testing this robotic bellhop, a wheeled service vehicle designed to shuttle items from the hotel lobby desk to guest rooms. Whether a gimmick or a sign of things to come, Botlr is the latest among a new generation of robots – like Google’s self-driving car, Aetheon’s Tug hospital supply robot and Caddytrek’s electric golf caddy – that are starting to walk or roll around the everyday world.

Not surprisingly, these robotic baby steps toward the mainstream have led to hand-wringing: What are the consequences of smarter-than-us artificial intelligence as seen in movies like “Her” and “Transcendence”? And will the next stage of machine automation lead to more job elimination?

Aloft Hotels and Savioke (pronounced “savvy-oak”), the Silicon Valley startup that designed Botlr, insist that they are not interested in automation as a labor-saving tool. They say they are simply polishing the small hotel chain’s tech-embracing brand while hoping to add some efficiency.

“I see this as an enhancement to our customer service,” said Brian McGuinness, Starwood Hotels’ senior vice president for its Specialty Select brands, which include the 100 Aloft hotels expected to be opened in 14 countries by next year. “It’s not going to be a replacement for our human talent.”

Starwood uses the Aloft hotel near the Apple campus as a test bed for the technology-oriented hotel chain’s newest gadgets and services. They experiment with things like easy ways to get digital content from your smartphone and tablet onto your hotel room’s television screen. And, of course, you can unlock the door of your hotel room with an app on your smartphone.

Androgynous robot

So it was only natural that hotel executives were receptive when Savioke, a robotics startup in Santa Clara, Calif., cold-called Starwood earlier this year with the proposal that the Aloft chain add a service robot to its array of “tech forward” gadgets and services.

Beyond having a butler’s “collar” painted on its chest, Botlr is not humanoid in appearance and is not meant to appear male or female. Indeed, it looks a little bit like R2-D2 might appear if it had been put on a diet. Or perhaps like a miniaturized nuclear power plant’s cooling tower.

It would not generate a second glance if it were stationary in a hotel lobby. But on the move, it can reach speeds of up to 4 mph. That’s about the pace of a brisk walk, and adequate for Botlr to hustle razors, toothbrushes, smartphone chargers, snacks and even the morning paper to any of the hotel’s 150 rooms in two to three minutes.

When the robot reaches the guest’s door, the system calls the room, alerting the guest to the delivery.

The robot, which has a camera and other sensors, can recognize that the room door has been opened and then lift the lid on the storage bin that holds the delivery. A flat panel display at the top of the robot is used for the guest to enter a review rather than giving a tip. In return for a positive review, the robot will do a small dance before it departs.

Perhaps the most impressive capability of the new robot is its ability to independently make its way to upper floors. When it reaches the elevator it wirelessly sends a command for the door to open and then maneuvers into the elevator car, taking care to stay out of the way of any human passengers.

When it returns to the lobby, Botlr can plug itself into a recharging station while it awaits its next errand.

‘Robots for humanity’

Savioke was founded last year by Steve Cousins, a former IBM and Xerox Parc research manager who more recently was president and chief executive of Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley robotics laboratory founded in 2006 by Scott Hassan, who wrote Google’s first search engine.

Before entering into an agreement with Starwood to deploy delivery robots, Cousins said Savioke was interested in a range of service industry applications like assisted living facilities and hotels. The company would not disclose how much the robots cost.

Like McGuinness, Cousins deflected questions that robots would displace jobs and pointed out that the company’s motto is “Robots for humanity.”

“Over time we want to help all people, but especially people with disabilities,” he said.

He added that he shared the perspective of economists who believe that while technology might destroy particular job types, overall the economy will continue to grow and new kinds of jobs will be created by high tech.

The number of jobs in the world, he argued, has grown since society began automating.

“If you really want to create a lot of jobs, just outlaw tractors,” he said. “The workforce would have to go back on the farm, but nobody is willing to do that.”

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