Robotics in Hospitality: More than a Gimmick?

Bionic Bar on Harmony of the Seas. Photo Source: Makr Shakr

The world seems to be in a great big hurry to automate everything. We can barely get through a week without being told by the automotive industry that autonomous vehicles are on the way. Some widely available vehicles already come with safety technology suites that are loaded with automated features. In the simplest of terms, an automated vehicle is a robot, it’s just a robot built to look like a car. WALL-E hoverchairs are on the horizon!

Neil deGrasse Tyson once said, "With regard to robots, in the early days of robots people said, 'Oh, let's build a robot,' and what's the first thought? You make a robot look like a human and do human things. That's so 1950s. We are so past that.” Today’s robots – and robots of the future – won’t necessarily look like what television, movies, and comic books have taught or promised us. Take a look at a Roomba – it certainly doesn’t look human and it’s definitely a robot. Robert Rippee, director of the hospitality lab at UNLV, actually advises against service industry venues utilizing humanoid robots as they tend to be perceived as unsettling, a human response known as uncanny valley.

Just about every industry is chasing some form of automated technology. The hospitality industry is no exception. A trio of robotics experts addressed the somewhat sensitive subject of robotics in hospitality this year. Linda Pouliot, the CEO of Dishcraft Robotics, Robert Rippee, and Lyle Worthington, principal, Worthington Consulting, made it clear that we should expect robots to become more prevalent in hospitality venues. But will they be more than a gimmick? More importantly, will they replace bartenders, servers, bar backs, bussers, chefs and cooks?

To answer the first question we have to look at where robots would operate, front of house and back of house. The majority of robots operating in BOH roles wouldn’t be filling customer-facing roles. Rather, they could be safely washing dishes, monitoring inventory, retrieving products, cleaning and sanitizing surfaces, and performing other BOH duties. These types of robots would essentially wipe out a large percentage of worker’s comp claims since they can’t be injured by chemicals, slip and fall, or throw out their backs.

But what about BOH robots capable of preparing and cooking food? Obviously such a robot could easily be treated as a marketing gimmick. And while gimmicks aren’t inherently negative (they do tend to attract customers), robots capable of preparing food menu items with consistency, quality and speed could elevate guest perception. And, again, if they’re purpose built for the risks of their programmed tasks, they’re essentially immune to the dangers of cooking. Minus downtime for repairs or perhaps replacement, a robot isn’t going to need to take time off because of a cut or burn.

Front of house robots are a different matter. In fact, BOH robots programmed to fill some FOH roles are also different. Customers would see FOH robots or BOH robots that enter FOH spaces since they could be programmed to serve, take orders, answer questions, or otherwise interact with guests. If robots become more present in the industry they are going to fill guest-facing, service, and entertainment roles.

Now for the second question: Will they replace people? Ideally, no. As Rippee said, "It's not about replacing people," it's about augmentation. Robots should work alongside humans, not take their jobs. A robot capable of breaking down the language barrier would enhance the customer experience and not be viewed as a gimmick. Co-bots, a term used to describe a human-robot relationship, are an example of the ideal role of robots for our industry: a human oversees the process, a robot performs the task. In other words, waste a robot’s time and not a human’s. A robot capable of building cocktails? That’s a different story.

If you think a robot can’t take a bartender’s job, you’re wrong. As of about two years ago, there are robots capable of filling classic, signature, and even customer cocktail orders. Royal Caribbean’s ships Quantum of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, Ovation of the Seas, and Harmony of the Seas each have bars called Bionic Bar that have two robots making drinks. The company that developed them, Makr Shakr, says the combinations of possible cocktails are “endless.” Orders are communicated to the robots – two arms rather than humanoid designs – from customers using tablets. There are dozens of bottles of spirits hanging above the robots, and the arms are programmed to use precise amounts of ingredients, ice, and even garnishes. They can muddle. They can stir. They can shake. Occasionally a human needs to step in to ensure a process is performed correctly, but that’s far from a co-bot relationship. In my opinion, and I have no intention of insulting Royal Caribbean or Makr Shakr, Bionic Bars are a gimmick that have the potential of threatening the craft of bartending.

This portion of a review of Bionic Bar on a Yahoo Travel site is rather unsettling. Emphasis added to the disturbing part: "But none of Quantum’s perks are as deliriously awesome as the Bionic Bar. It does away with the old-fashioned inconvenience of having to shout to get your bartender’s attention by eliminating the bartender altogether: Two industrial robots prepare, mix, shake, and/or stir your drink and bring it to you." Wow.

Should this type of robot make its way to bars and nightclubs, I have questions. Are these robots capable of upselling? How, besides descriptions programmed into a tablet à la Fleming’s or a screen affixed to the robot, will these robots answer questions about flavors, aromas, etc.? Are they capable of recognizing an impaired patron and cutting them off? Unless there are some incredible leaps in tech, I doubt a drink-building robot will be able to explain a personal experience with or connection to a particular spirit. Sure, algorithms can help a robot learn a guest’s tastes and habits so it can make recommendations, but how is that creating a true connection? Building relationships, creating elevated experiences, these are what keep customers coming back to bars and other hospitality venues. Customer service, it’s not a gimmick.

For now, FOH robots appear to be a gimmick. And for now, they don’t seem to be a terrible idea. If they can be implemented in such a way that humans aren’t replaced, they could be an enhancement to the hospitality venue. Robotics in our industry are an inevitability: processing power, sensors, and other components are cheap, and we’re seeing huge advancements in deep learning. So, get ready for robots. Ideally, get ready for co-bots. As long as no Skynet-type companies build a bartending robot that eventually reaches The Singularity and determines that, through many interactions with bar patrons, humans are irrelevant and should be terminated, we shouldn’t necessarily expect the worst…for now.

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