By Cory Phare
In a recent viral TikTok, a server with the nametag Janet brings a hungry Denny’s customer their pancakes.
That wouldn’t be noteworthy – except Janet is a robot waiter called Servi, developed by Bear Robotics. “She” has plenty of company. Cecelia.ai the “robotender” can customize a Manhattan to your liking, while pizza-making robots such as xRobotics and Picnic are poised to crank out pies at a rate of up to 300 per hour.
From a purely economic sense, a workforce that can run 24/7/365 without breaks is alluring to businesses struggling to fill open positions. So as major chain restaurants increasingly incorporate automation, does this mean we’ll soon enter a service landscape as predicted by “The Jetsons”?
“The future of the hospitality industry is going to see integration of smarter tech – the question is what jobs robots can actually do effectively versus their human counterparts,” said Smita Singh, faculty member with Metropolitan State University of Denver’s School of Hospitality.
Early morning breakfast at Denny’s I did give the server hot apple pie mini melt sample..♬ original sound - Bob
Singh, along with Eric Olson, Ph.D., chair of the Rita & Navin Dimond Department of Hotel Management at MSU Denver, and Chin-Hsun Tsai, assistant professor at Iowa State University, recently published a piece in the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management exploring the use of service robots in event settings.
The study concluded that event registrants reported a higher level of satisfaction when dealing with human employees versus robots, but the gap narrowed when machines took on more humanlike characteristics.
“In other words, an event manager may use tactics of increasing social presence, such as voice, nonverbal communication and facial gestures to increase evaluation when a robot is used on a service encounter,” Olson said.
It’s certainly not the industry’s first foray into service robots. In 2016, Hilton launched Connie, a robot concierge, while the employees of Japan’s Henn-na Hotel are primarily a mechanical crew, including an English-speaking dinosaur.
As the market for such robots is expected to grow by $924 million by 2024, the task delineation between human and machine becomes critical to distinguish, Singh said. The trend will only accelerate as firms aim for customer comfort when interacting with staff.
“The pandemic changed everything,” she said. “People weren’t originally as concerned with contactless service, but within a couple of years we saw a rapid growth in interest of how to avoid or limit direct interactions.”
Singh anticipates that ongoing adoption of hospitality robots will focus on job duties for speed, cost and effectiveness of specific tasks that are particularly dangerous or mundane. This possible displacement has led to a schism between employees eager to implement the new technology and those who see it as a threat to their job identity, she added.
Less replicable are the emotional connections crucial to customer expectations. Olson said savvy leaders can focus on creating value in experiential guest interactions, while Singh discussed the eeriness reported by event registrants when robots looked too human – known as the “uncanny valley” effect. The subsequent revulsion reported is hypothesized to arise from evolutionary responses related to mortality, sickness and social- norm violations.
“We asked, ‘To what extent do anthropomorphic features make a difference?’” Singh said. “It turns out that social presence of being together with another person in a space makes a big difference in terms of emotional connection, with implications for the industry.”
As Scientific American points out, the key for companies looking to employ humanlike robots is recognizability without replication, while maximizing relatability.
Regardless, Singh stressed that people aren’t going anywhere any time soon. We’re still needed for oversight and maintenance, along with that emotional X factor. It’s a sector evolution not unlike that in advanced manufacturing’s “fourth industrial revolution.”
Though technology is advancing ever faster, there’s still a ways to go. Pepper, a small robot developed by SoftBank, made waves in customer service at HSBC and a visit to the U.K. Parliament to discuss artificial intelligence. But Pepper also malfunctioned during Buddhist scripture readings and was ultimately shelved.
And that robot hotel? It ended up “laying off” over half its mechanical staff after it created more work for their flesh-and-blood co-workers.
“The tech will never be perfect,” Singh said. “There are a lot of places where robots can add value, but humans are ultimately irreplaceable.”
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