Recently, we discussed staffing shortages and how they’ve impacted the training industry. Many event creators are coping with said shortages by upskilling. Training employees to do multiple jobs is quickly becoming the standard, and it’s one way to compensate for ongoing shortages. However, technology has provided another potential solution in the form of mobile robots. Yes, you heard right. David Chen, co-founder of engineering at Orbbec 3D Technology International, Inc., notes the serious staffing shortages affecting the hotel industry in particular. He feels that technology absolutely must be part of the solution to this problem.
And to be clear, it is an ongoing problem that is likely to persist long into the foreseeable future. The overwhelming staff shortage is causing airlines to cancel flights across the country. This makes it difficult for event planners to make group reservations. And that’s not all: According to New England Livery Association (NELA), the limousine and charter bus industry has lost a whopping 90 percent of their business. Among the unfortunate results: There are no longer enough drivers to service returning meetings and events.
As a whole, the hospitality industry is still down by 1.2 million workers since the pandemic started in February 2020. Part of the problem comes down to the source of employees for this sector. Traditionally, the hospitality sector relied heavily on college students enrolled in hospitality programs and foreign workers with temporary visas. But because the pandemic disrupted international travel and resulted in mandatory quarantines, these sources dried up. The pay and hourly rates associated with these jobs were never all that favorable; it’s not difficult to see why many workers left the industry to work other jobs following the pandemic.
Conversely, the technology sector has flourished due to increasing demand during the pandemic. Because large and small businesses had to create virtual experiences in order to avoid closing down, large investments were dedicated to advances in tech. So, enter robots to help ease staffing shortages.
Robots as Housekeepers
So what can these mobile robots actually do? According to Chen, they have very practical uses. For example, they can deliver room service items like towels and toiletries. Because of 3D facial recognition, these robots can even address guests by name. Equipped with 3D cameras, they can also double as mobile security guards, throughout a facility.
The travel and hospitality industries have been notoriously understaffed in the housekeeping sector. If you thought this was one area in which robots would be of no assistance, think again. Service robots can actually be quite efficient at simple tasks such as using disinfectant sprays and UV lights to clean surfaces. They can do jobs like sanitizing door knobs, TV remotes, elevator buttons, and other surfaces in mere seconds.
Robotic Bartenders Serve Up Drinks- and Experiential Value
It may sound a bit surreal, but robots are also serving as bartenders. In August, the OppiKoppi music festival in South Africa gifted over 150 attendees with free drinks via a drone. Yes, you read that right. Guests ordered their beer using an app on their phones. When staff received the orders, they loaded parachute-equipped, single servings of lidded beer onto the drone. The drone, once in the air, used the GPS coordinates of the phone that placed the order to navigate to its destination. Once there, the beer would parachute down to the intended recipient. This initiative was born from a partnership between Darkwing Aerials, Windhoek Beer, and the festival organizers.
This is an extravagant example, but the M.I.T City Senseable City Lab recently teamed up with Coca-Cola, Bacardi Rums, and the Italian firm Carlo Ratti Associati to debut their own robotic bartender. Known as the Makr Shakr, the robot made its debut at the recent Google 1/O conference. This unprecedented contraption is actually much more than a bartender. It also serves as a social sharing system and alcohol consumption monitor, too. The Makr Shakr has its own app where guests submit their orders. Then the guests get to witness the three impressive, mechanical arms combining liquors, syrups, fruit mixers, and ice to whip up impressive cocktails.
You may be wondering just how precise a robot’s movements can be. After all, any bartender or cocktail server will tell you that it takes precision and a flourish of artistry to mix a mojito or thinly slice a lemon. Surprisingly, the Makr Shak can surprisingly rival even the most talented beverage artiste- and it does the same expert job every time. A large screen behind the bar displays the number of drinks in the queue, estimated wait time, drinks ready for pickup, and even the most popular drinks by gender! As you can see, robotic bartenders have the potential to deliver more than delicious drinks. They also add an element of awe and experiential value that today’s audiences are craving.
Guest of Honor: A Robot?
More commonly, robots are being used as booth attendants. At South by Southwest Interactive in March, 3M featured a holographic virtual presenter named Jenny. Jenny’s job was to sense people walking by and speak and gesture to them. As it turns out, she had a wealth of information about panels and events, and could even invite people to interact with an iPad displayed in front of her.
But robots are doing more than connecting with people in person at events. They’re also interacting with remote attendees, allowing them to participate in more authentic ways from afar. Users can connect to the robot using Skype or another video conferencing platform or app. They can actually control its movement from their desktop computers.
How does it all work? According to Jeremy Parsons, CEO of Mantaro Product Development Services, the robot has a screen, camera, microphone, and speakers within a square that comprises the head. The tablet can be panned and tilted so that you can look directly at people without turning the whole robot. These kinds of robots have the capacity to allow people to virtually explore a trade show floor without actually being there. They provide more authentic access to and interaction with booths and exhibitors for remote audiences.
You may have heard of Ford Motor Company’s robot, Hank. He’s been the star of several auto shows over the past few years. His main job was to greet, entertain, and allow a staffer to carry on helpful conversations with visitors. Controlled by a staffer hidden from view wearing sensors that transmit his movements to the robot, Hank definitely reduced the workload.
Suitable Technology’s Beam allowed a journalist to attend a conference, navigate the floor, and conduct a private interview with the CEO of the company. Going back to the hospitality industry, which has really been the catalyst for efforts to mainstream this technology, California’s Aloft Cupertino Hotel now has a new robot on staff. Its name is Boltr, and he regularly makes deliveries to hotel guests. Due to Boltr’s overwhelming success, the robot is now touring the country. Aloft has also been able to introduce a second Boltr at their Silicon Valley location. One Japanese hotel has even opened up the world’s very first robot-staffed hotel.
The law of this new futuristic land is still a gray area. Ed Walters of Fastcase warns of the dangers of allowing laws to lag behind revolutionary advances in technology. As an example, he references the industrial revolution in which a working society was not regulated by appropriate laws. Exploitation of child labor, perpetual slavery, and lack of wage and hour laws caused a lot of unnecessary suffering and death.
Because of how far society has progressed from that point, Walters acknowledges that the majority of people might not notice the potential consequences of poorly governed technology. From a legal standpoint, he expresses concerns about net neutrality, unwarranted searches, the complicated issue of whether or not a robot legally constitutes a person.
“Quietly, robots are all around us”, says Walters. According to him, it’s a testament to the prevalence of machines in our lives that many of us hardly notice their presence. “We kind of take them for granted”, he relates.
Self-driving cars are considered robots, so in the case of one causing an accident, who pays the consequences? Walters shares that many legal scholars are considering the need for a new, no-fault insurance scheme. If technology causes an accident through no fault of the owner, does this constitute criminal negligence? And if not, how will the victim(s) of the accident seek compensation for damages or paid repairs from insurance companies? One thing is clear in this case: Law reform is necessary.
Walters suggests that legislation needs to apply existing laws to individual circumstances, and decide whether they make sense. If robots are always considered the exception to every legal rule, he cautions, this could result in a dystopian nightmare. Make no mistake: Applying criminal law to machines is complex.
Robot Technology and the Future
“We could be on a cusp of time where machines help us to be even bigger than ourselves, to have an outsized impact on the future that we have never been able to before”, Walters says. He believes that if we act fast enough to create laws that fairly govern machines, robots could be the start of “the newest American century”.
Because robotics already represents a major market, analysts have been able to make predictions regarding the evolution of the sector. As we’ve mentioned, one of the main trends to note involves the professional service industry. Online marketplaces and delivery services have increased the demand for robotics in the fields of manufacturing customization and logistics. The food industry responded promptly to this demand by employing delivery robots.
Today’s technology is focused on catering to people in everyday life based on individual needs, making tasks easier and less time-consuming. Robots are no exception to this personalization trend. One recent development involves robotic companions that can aid and assist the aging or disabled demographic with tasks like grooming and household chores. These “companions” can be controlled through a mobile device.
These rapidly evolving trends beg the question, “How intelligent are robots?” To give you a general idea of how far AI has evolved, look to the humanoid robotic arm that is capable of solving a Rubik’s cube! Because of improved sensors, AI flexibility, voice recognition, and analysis technologies, communication between humans and robots will get better. Automated devices will be mobile, easily integrated into manufacturing systems, and have longer life cycles. Robots are already being advanced for mass production, but are expected to continue to be monitored and modified by humans.
It’s safe to say that robots will be among us long into the future, if not forever. As the technology continues to rapidly evolve, it will inevitably become more mainstream and affordable. As of now, a robot requires at least a $20,000 dollar investment, but this can change as the event industry changes and new standards arise, increasing the demand for robots. As always, the best way to survive and evolve in a changing industry is to be armed with knowledge. Right now, awareness is really all that’s needed on your part. Our advice? Learn everything you can about robots now, and you’ll be ready when they eventually become a part of your operations.