Room service? It's a robot at the door
THINK of it as the Terminator's human-friendly sibling.
In a hotel lobby across the street from Apple's corporate campus, a desk clerk places a razor in the bin of a 1m-tall robot and taps in a room number on a display.
The robot, "Botlr", chirps an R2-D2-style acknowledgement and rolls off to a lift and its final destination.
On Wednesday, the Aloft hotel will begin testing this robotic bellhop, a wheeled service vehicle designed to shuttle items from the hotel lobby desk to guest rooms.
Whether a gimmick or a sign of things to come, Botlr is the latest among a new generation of robots - like Google's self-driving car, Aetheon's Tug hospital supply robot and Caddytrek's electric golf caddy - that are starting to walk or roll around the everyday world.
Not surprisingly, these robotic baby steps towards the mainstream have led to hand-wringing: What are the consequences of smarter-than-us artificial intelligence as seen in movies like Her and Transcendence?
And will the next stage of machine automation lead to more job elimination?
Aloft Hotels and Savioke (pronounced "savvy-oak"), the Silicon Valley start-up that designed Botlr, insisted that they were not interested in automation as a labour-saving tool. They said they were simply polishing the small hotel chain's tech-embracing brand while hoping to add some efficiency.
"I see this as an enhancement to our customer service," said Brian McGuinness, Starwood Hotels' senior vice-president for its Specialty Select brands, which include the 100 Aloft hotels expected to be opened in 14 countries by next year.
"It's not going to be a replacement for our human talent."
Indeed, for all the discussion of robots intruding into everyday life, a robot's ability to perform anything beyond basic tasks is still very much the stuff of laboratory experiments.
The vast majority of robots are, in fact, either simple autonomous vacuum cleaners made by companies like iRobot, or several types of lawn mowers and trimmers.
The International Federation of Robotics reported that 16,067 professional service robots were sold internationally in 2012, only 2 per cent more than the 15,776 sold in 2011.
"The collaborative robot application, whether it is in factories, hospitals or restaurants, has a big future," said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotic Industries Association.
"But it's been very slow in terms of non-factory applications. It is still going to be a while."
Starwood uses the Aloft hotel near the Apple campus as a test-bed for the hotel chain's newest gadgets and services.
It experiments with things like easy ways to get digital content from your smartphone and tablet onto your hotel room's television screen.
And, of course, you can unlock the door of your hotel room with an app on your smartphone.
So it was only natural that hotel executives were receptive when Savioke cold-called Starwood earlier this year with the proposal that the Aloft chain add a service robot to its array of "tech forward" gadgets.
Beyond having a butler's "collar" painted on its chest, Botlr is not humanoid in appearance and is not meant to appear male or female. Indeed, it looks a little bit like R2-D2 might appear if it had been put on a diet. Or perhaps like a miniaturised nuclear power plant's cooling tower.
It would not generate a second glance if it were stationary in a hotel lobby. But on the move, it can reach speeds of up to 6kmh. That's about the pace of a brisk walk, and adequate for Botlr to hustle razors, toothbrushes, smartphone chargers, snacks and even the morning paper to any of the hotel's 150 rooms in two to three minutes.
When the robot reaches the guest's door, the system calls the room, alerting the guest to the delivery.
The robot, which has a camera and other sensors, can recognise that the room door has been opened and lifts the lid on the storage bin that holds the delivery.
A flat-panel display at the top of the robot is used for the guest to enter a "review", rather than give a tip.
In return for a positive review, the robot will do a small dance before it departs.
Perhaps the most impressive capability of the robot is its ability to independently make its way to upper floors. When it reaches the lift, it wirelessly sends a command for the door to open and then manoeuvres into it, taking care to stay out of the way of any human passengers.
When it returns to the lobby, Botlr can plug itself into a recharging station while it awaits its next errand.