Are Hotels The Best Robotic Testing Ground?

This week a big story in AI was AlphaGo beating Grandmaster Lee Se-dol in the ancient Chinese game of Go (a more complex strategic game than chess).  Confucians were left dumbfounded, reminding the word of IBM’s victory over Kasparov in 1977.  Deep Blue has been replaced by Watson, and when not hanging out with Bob Dylan or Ridley Scott, he is wearing the Les Clefs d’Or (golden concierge keys) at your local Hilton Hotel.

While Watson has gone through a name change, being christened as “Connie”(after the chain’s founder, Conrad Hilton) and manifested in the Aldebaran Nao robot to help guests navigate around the hotel and find restaurants or tourist attractions in the area—but it is not able to check them in just yet (very similar to the job OSHBot is doing in Lowe’s).

Watson’s main role is natural language processing, which enables the bot to welcome guests, grasp their spoken queries, and answer accordingly. The information on local attractions and interesting sites is actually channelled from the database of travel platform WayBlazer, an IBM partner. Connie is also designed to improve itself through interactions with human customers, learning from frequent queries how to fine-tune its recommendations.

“This project with Hilton and WayBlazer represents an important shift in human-machine interaction, enabled by the embodiment of Watson’s cognitive computing,” Rob High, chief technology officer of Watson, said in a statement “Watson helps Connie understand and respond naturally to the needs and interests of Hilton’s guests—which is an experience that’s particularly powerful in a hospitality setting, where it can lead to deeper guest engagement.”

Connie is not the first robot to work in a hotel—far from it. In Nagasaki, Japan, the Hen-na Hotel has in fact whittled down its biological staff to only ten people, and is in general fully manned by robots, speaking both Japanese and English. The English-speaking concierge is, bafflingly, a velociraptor sporting a blue bowtie.  A few blocks from my office is the Yotel, the first robotic hotel in America.


Last month, the Marriott Residence Inn Hotel in LAX featured their newest room service attendant. His name is Wally, a 3-foot tall delivery robot. According to the local news report, Wally is getting a lot of attention, “We thought he was amazing, it was just so impressive,” exclaimed a happy customer (taking his water below).

Wally couldn’t be easier to program. When a guest calls the front desk asking for some type of delivery, employees program Wally with the room number, floor and a message. Since he can’t talk, Wally uses the phone call to alert the guest.  The LAX hotel is the only one in the Los Angeles area currently using a robot for room service deliveries. Wally was built by San Francisco based company, Savioke.


This past January at the RECESS Pitch Competition in Los Angeles, a Cornell team competed against 14 other schools with their innovative Maidbot for  the hospitality industry. Inspired by the television show The Jetsons, Maidbot is a robot created to assist hotel room attendants with housekeeping tasks. In addition, Maidbot was announced as one of 8 finalists in the Student Startup Madness competition — a collegiate startup tournament at SXSW.  Maidbot will now have the opportunity to pitch to investors next week in Austin, Texas.

“Hospitality as a whole is very traditional and old fashioned,” Green said. “With this new automated system we were really excited to revolutionize and transform the hospitality industry.”

Micah Green (shown below) had previously worked as a room attendant at a hotel. After recognizing flaws in the room attendant system, he said he saw an opportunity for robots in the industry. Maidbot sets out to improve efficiency in hospitality by lowering the cost of cleaning rooms and the injury rates of room attendants while increasing consistency of cleanliness in hotel rooms, according to the startup’s website.


The current prototype (above) was created to clean hotel room floors autonomously, however, Green said he hoped Maidbot will eventually be able to accomplish bigger tasks, including making hotel beds. Green said the founders of Maidbot used their understanding of the hospitality industry to create a commercial product for everyday use in hotels. The company has worked closely with Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, and is based out of REV Accelerator Program — a startup incubator located in Ithaca. Maidbot was also supported by Life Changing Lab’s summer incubator program last summer.

Returning to the big AI story today, Bradley Hayes, a postdoc student at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science Lab (CSAIL), created DeepDrumpf, a  Twitter bot to mimic Trump’s own words using  deep learning techniques to recreate his language one letter at a time. The results are sometimes incoherent, but that only makes DeepDrumpf seem more like the real thing.

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