In the fictional world, robots are either friend (Short Circuit, Big Hero 6) or foe (Blade Runner, the Daleks), but despite the best efforts of tech companies, getting humans to accept them in real life have largely come to a big, binary zero.
That fascination/fear of robots with emotions and intelligence was highlighted in last year’s acclaimed Ex Machina, when robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) seemed to do the thing we’d never expect from man-made machines: to lie.
But at the moment in California, helpful—and even BB-8 cute, some say—robots are providing bellhop service at a dozen hotels, and are proving to be popular with staff as well as guests.
At the Residence Inn near LAX, “Wally” is gliding across the brightly-lit lobby. Weighing in at 100 pounds and three feet tall, he looks rather like a funky upside down vase, and it’s hard to hear him over the chatter of checking-in guests.
The elevator doors ping, and he waits politely for other guests to leave before setting off on his latest assignment. Moving smoothly down the corridor on his wheels, he seems as determined as R2-D2—and then there’s a sudden trilling. It’s the phone inside room 406; Wally is calling to say he’s about to arrive.
“I called down and asked them to ‘send Wally,'” says the smiling guest from Texas, her iPhone already clicking as she takes pictures. “I saw video of him online before I came, and he’s so cute,” she adds, before popping open Wally’s lid and removing a takeout cup of coffee.
Though he doesn’t talk, Wally’s digital screen eyes “blink” adorably as he waits, and when the guest finally punches in a five out of five rating, Wally does a side-to-side shimmy and blips happily. Mission accomplished!
Wirelessly guided by 3D cameras, motion sensors and GPS, he can deliver toothpaste, corkscrews, candy, subs, ice cream and other items—all without ever expecting a tip, and he’s available 24/7 for your convenience.
“People simply love seeing him,” says Residence Inn manager Tom Beedon, noting that rolling out the robot at the same time as a famous movie series returned from a galaxy far, far, away helped boost interest, and that the on-site Starbucks had to design a special cup carry case.
Back in the lobby, Wally lines himself up with the front desk docking station, a neon blue light coming on as charges up – though he probably won’t be off-line for long.
An average trip takes about four minutes, and the only hiccup so far has been wet towels. “They gave him a short circuit,” says Beedon, “but now he’s waterproofed.”
Humans are still needed to help Wally, though. Guests call the front desk with requests, and once a staff member has collected the item, the room number will be entered into Wally’s screen and the bounty put into his storage hatch—and then off he goes.
Recently the web was abuzz with news of another delivery robot that’s being trialed by Domino’s pizza in Australia. The Domino Robotic Unit (DRU) has caterpillar treads and can, at least according to plans, follow a map, navigate sidewalks and avoid obstacles before delivering any feast or drinks to your door.
Then last year, the Henn-na Hotel at the Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Nagasaki, Japan, opened with a staff of Japanese-speaking robots (both realistic human-looking and a Velociraptor, but still needing human help).
Back in America, so successful has Wally been that the Residence Inn’s sister hotel nearby is about to unveil “Winnie,” and Beedon says that they’re even planning a summer wedding (complete with veil) for the futuristic pair.
Manufacturers Savioke have received a further $15 million of innovator funding too, which means that more robots will be coming to a location near you … and they’re coming in peace.
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