ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK: No hotels staffed by robots until they learn to take a joke
A funny thing happened on the way to the future. The world's first hotel to be staffed almost entirely by robots, the Henn Na in Tokyo, recently fired half of its 243 robots. The reason? They often could not perform simple tasks like photocopying passports, and malfunctions meant they needed even more humans as backup.
"They were trying to take the technology too far too quickly," says Julia Aymonier, chief information officer at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, the world's top-ranked hospitality management school.
The institution, which has earned a Michelin star for its educational restaurant, this year introduced its first virtual-reality class, as well as a virtual personal assistant software "bot" using artificial intelligence (AI). Initially, it will help guests and students connect to the school's Wi-Fi, and later answer questions from potential students and parents about courses.
Aymonier is adamant, however, that AI is for now only an aid to humans, and cannot replace them in hospitality.
"AI at its current level will not have the human touch until we have a machine with which we can have a conversation that is not restricted to certain topics," she told Business Times. "AI works in virtual assistants when you have general questions that are sequenced around a specific context."
The problem with these bots is that they do not have what is called episodic memory, which is necessary for one to be in one conversation, jump to another topic, and then come back to what was being talked about before.
"In normal conversation you go in and out of context. Until that is possible for bots, they can't have the human touch. People often claim their machines have emotional intelligence because they respond to what they hear, but that is just following a pattern; there is no empathy. A machine today cannot understand a joke. Until we get to that level, they are not replacing humans in the hospitality industry," says Aymonier.
At the Henn Na Hotel, in the early hours of one morning, a virtual assistant mistook snoring for a question, and asked the snorer to repeat the request - providing an unwanted wake-up call to a startled guest.
"We can use AI to make life much more interesting and fun, but the reality is that a concierge in a hotel, who can get tickets to a specific show, or the last seats at a sports game, cannot be replaced by a machine. Jobs will change, but certain jobs demand the soft skills that machines do not have."
This represents a challenge to educate children for a changed future, but also an opportunity for humans to get ahead of the robots by learning skills while the bots can't.
"We have to get kids out of our school not only with soft skills of managing in hospitality, but they also have to be hybrid humans who can interact with AI. The soft skills must be reinforced with data analysis and the linguistic skills of talking to AI. Graduates will have to be good at talking to people, as well as being able to use data, to create a tailored customer service. These extra skills will make such people very valuable in the market."
• Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee