Should I tip my robot butler?

Autonomous robot helpers for the services industry

A WHILE ago, the news that Starwood is rolling out robot butlers in their Aloft hotels in the US hit the headlines of industry websites and magazines. I’m generally very fond of innovation in our industries, yet I’m somewhat skeptical about robot butlers and, indeed, robot anything. It all comes down to lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners.

I once had the misfortune of being given one of those robot floor vacuums. In theory, they’re brilliant – silently sweeping your living room floor while you’re busy doing other things. In practice, I kept accidentally stepping on it, or it would upset the cat, or I’d forget to switch it off when leaving the house. Once, it slurped up and shredded a banknote that fell off the table and into the monster’s path. Eventually, it met its slurpy end when trying to vacuum up a pile of orange peels, which had missed the bin and fallen on the floor behind it. Top marks for realising that the area behind the bin needed cleaning, zero marks for taking on the impossible.

The robotic lawnmower, kindly lent to me by a well-meaning friend, on the other hand, worked extremely efficiently. So much so that it ploughed right through a flowerbed. Perhaps, my friend accidentally lent me a robot tractor?

You can see how, as a result, I’m now somewhat suspicious of robotic appliance and well-meaning friends.

Don’t get me wrong; I’d very much like to see one of Starwood’s “Botlrs” robot butlers in action. The concept appeals to me, because it’s innovative and has the potential to free up hotel employees to do something a little more useful than running up to rooms and delivering items like toothpaste, newspapers, or city maps. It also eliminates potential tipping conundrums. Or does it? Starwood asks that you “tip” their “Botlrs” with a tweet that includes the hashtag #MeetBotlr. I’m not sure what happens if you forget to tweet or aren’t on Twitter. Will the robot be upset? Will you face a robot revolt outside your room?

Other companies, e.g. Amazon or Google, and even the Dubai government are also moving towards recruiting robotic help, but in the shape of delivery drones. Unmanned, remote-controlled, flying machines that can deliver important government documents or your dinner.

If all of these plans go ahead, and it looks certain that they will in one way or the other, our cities will get even busier. Right now, it’s common sense to look left and right before crossing a road, but perhaps you’ll soon also have to look up to avoid collision with a delivery drone? You might enjoy a little downtime in the park when suddenly, almost Harry Potter-esque, not an owl, but a drone drops a bundle of documents at your feet.

I’m not certain I like the idea that much. Sure, it’ll be convenient, but it’ll also be very hectic. Who will control the drones? The same people that control the taxis I take in Dubai, which never seem to be able to find my house at the first attempt and then have issues getting me to where I want to go?

In addition to safety issues there are privacy issues, too. If you own your house, you probably also own the ground it stands on, but do you own the airspace above and around it? How would you react if you step onto your balcony in the morning and are faced with a drone hovering just off the railing?

Like all new technologies, drones and robots have great potential, but we can only really tap it if we find the middle ground and balance usefulness and potential risks. I’d love to bring a robot “me” to the next trade event like ITB or ATM. The robot “me” could trawl the halls, collecting potentially useful information from exhibition stands and stealing other exhibitors’ chocolates and pens, while I could put my feet up in the café area of one of my clients’ stands. Now here’s a use of robots I fully endorse!

By Martin Kubler