In a hotel lobby across the street from Apple’s corporate campus, a desk clerk places a razor in the bin of a three-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 Aug. 20, 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 start-up 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.”
Indeed, for all the discussion of robots intruding on everyday life, a robot’s ability to perform anything beyond basic tasks is still very much the stuff of lab experiments. Most robots are, in fact, either simple autonomous vacuum cleaners made by companies like iRobot or several types of lawn mowers and trimmers. The International Federation of Robotics reported that 16,067 professional service robots were sold internationally in 2012, only 2 percent more than the 15,776 sold in 2011.
“The collaborative robot application, whether it’s in factories, hospitals or restaurants, has a big future,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotic Industries Association. “But it’s been very slow in terms of nonfactory applications to emerge. It’s still going to be a while.”
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.
So it was only natural that hotel executives were receptive when Savioke, a robotics start-up 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 it 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 four miles per hour. 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.
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, Mr. Cousins said that 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 Mr. McGuinness, Mr. Cousins deflected questions that robots would displace jobs, and pointed out that the company’s motto was “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 may destroy particular job types, over all 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 work force would have to go back on the farm, but nobody is willing to do that.”
As a hotel application, however, he said he saw the initial version of his simple delivery robot as freeing up the hotel desk clerk from having to run up to the room, giving the staff more time with the guests.
Botlr will have a Twitter hashtag, #MeetBotlr, but Mr. Cousins said he did not expect robotics technology to advance quickly enough to permit the robot to mimic the obsequiousness of a human bellboy looking for a nice tip. Or even a favorable review.