Friday, June 24, 2016

Robotics are here, just look to my right.

Say Hello to my little friend. 

That little robot to my right is Igi. Igi serves as the mascot for my innovation laboratory at UNLV but also makes a terrific prop as he bows and greets the audience at the beginning of my talk. So much so that I dare say, there were more tweets about the cute little robot than the speaker (me). But I suppose that's ok, since the point of my speech was robotics. 

The conference had titled the session, Robotics in Hospitality: The Future or Just a Gimmick and I was most fortunate to be accompanied on the panel by the CEO of robotics startup company. I delivered a twenty minute lecture on my observations on the state of robotics and in particular focused on one critical point: that the concept of robotics in service industry has less to do with replacing a certain position with a robot THAN in redefining processes because of the multi-sensory nature of the machines. 

The media stories are replete with an image of a humanoid robot replacing a worker at a fast food restaurant. And while that may make for good reading, I challenge that thinking on four basic reasons:

1. The economics. The cost of the technology and the current capabilities are still prohibitive from large scale replacement of humans in basic service roles with robots.

2. Why do it that way anyway? Consider a simple robot. That robot could contain an array of sensors; be completely IoT (Internet of Things) connected and quite possibly be powered by an Artificial Intelligence. What then are the implications of these multiple features? From my perspective it is that the enterprise should consider how this multi-sensor, multi-feature robot may enable it to redefine entire departmental structures and internal processes. The era of the true multi-tasker has arrived. A robot such as this can perform multiple tasks perhaps simultaneously or separately...the master of all trades if you will. So why limit the discussion to replacing an order taker with a machine?

3. Assist humans don't replace them. I have a long tenured experience in the hospitality industry. As in nearly every other industry, the markets are global. The customer segmentation changes in the last ten years are obvious. Today a hotel may see guests from Ohio with the next guest in line from South Korea or Estonia but chances are that front desk clerk speaks only English. Imagine a robot at the front desk that performs many tasks but among them it stands by to assist the agent by instantly recognizing and speaking to the guest in their native language. What possibilities does that open up to provide enhanced services to the guest? Suddenly the front desk is no longer limited to handling the transaction of the check-in and check-out but can market the amazing prix fixe dinner special in the restaurant that evening or the nearby walk to one of the city's finest museums. The team together, the warm greeting of the human and the flawless translation of her colleague, the machine. 

4. Forget about the science fiction humanoid appearance. Robots already exist in highly productive and non-humanoid form. Neil deGrasse Tyson said it best,

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. 
He is right. Take a look at the automotive industry as the most basic example, the robotics employed in the manufacturing process are non-humanoid machines performing exacting steps in the assembly. 

Another example and the one I used in my speech was the autonomous vehicle. Another popular topic for the media, scarcely a day without reading about self-driving cars. But isn't a self-driving car a robot? By my definition, yes.

While my talk was centered primarily on the hospitality industry it is not difficult to project the implications to nearly any B2C segment. If you are thinking about robotics for your industry then I suggest you start by looking at the processes and not simply the people.

My little friend, Igy represents something very real and quite profound. He represents the development of technologies that we are just beginning to understand how best to apply them. Technologies and machines that should be looked in a different light than simply technology to replace a single human function. We and they are capable of so much more.Robotics are here.