What is the future of travel?

From robot butlers to robot barmen, we look at the amazing technologies changing the way we spend our holidays. What’s next?

Imagine this: you climb aboard your cruise ship to start your holiday only to have a robot check you in, take your luggage to your room and pour you a drink. It sounds a bit farfetched doesn’t it? But so did many of the technologies we enjoy today just decades ago. Here we look at some of the most astonishing robot helpers you may now meet abroad.

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The robots who are making travel easier
It’s hard to believe, but it’s true - travel and hospitality companies around the world are adopting robots for a whole range of different jobs and it’s changing the way we experience our holidays. If you’ve recently stayed at international hotel chains such as the Marriott International, the Holiday Inn and the Hilton in Europe or North America you may have already encountered a robot checking you in, carrying your bags or even delivering items to your room.

But for travellers who haven’t yet experienced robots on their holidays the sight of a robot bellhop shuffling its way to the hotel lifts may come as a big surprise. There is currently no particular robot that can do everything, but robot helpers are being designed for a range of different tasks and they come in a variety of different shapes, sizes and colours.

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Meet Spencer, the guidance robot for Royal Dutch Airlines (Image: LASS Laboratorie)

Some like Mario, a 60 cm robot at the Marriott Hotel in Ghent, Belgium, are humanoid with arms and legs and even a face. These kinds of robots are commonly being used to interact with guests in a human-like way. You’ll find Mario entertaining kids, giving business presentations, handing out keys at hotel reception and telling guests what’s on the morning breakfast menu at the buffet. It can dance and sing, order cabs and play music, much to the delight of patrons. Mario can also speak up to 19 different languages, more than any human could possibly know.

Other robots like Relay, look more like moving suitcases with screens on top for communicating with guests. Relay has become a valued member of staff at the Holiday Inn Express in Redwood City California. If you order a change of sheets, extra towels or anything else from room service, chances are you’ll get to meet Relay when it delivers the items to your door. This hotel is one of a group of Holiday Inn hotels trialling robot butlers to help free up reception staff for other tasks. And, judging by online reviews, it’s a real hit with guests.

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The Marriott Hotel's Mario assists counter staff with checkiing in guests (Image: Aldebaran Robotics)

Japan’s Henn-na or “weird hotel” in Nagasaki takes the concept of robot staff to a whole new level. Quite often guests do a double take when they see what’s waiting for them at reception; there’s a female humanoid robot that looks and sounds like a real woman and if she’s busy, you might be lucky enough to be checked in by her colleague - a robot T-rex dinosaur. “Check in is at 3pm,” the T-rex often informs wary guests as they approach reception cautiously. We don’t think guests will be arguing with that rule.

The Henn-na hotel also boasts a robot mechanical arm in a glass case that can store your luggage away in draws, and a small robot concierge that will order you a taxi and give you directions any time you need them.

In the cruise industry too robots are becoming commonplace. In Europe, the Costa Group is trialling a robot that can read people’s emotions on the company’s cruise liners. The company is hoping the robot, named Pepper, will improve guest’s experiences by helping them during the embarkation process.

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The extremely lifelike check-in robot at Japan's Henn-na hotel (Image: Aldebaran Robotics)

Pepper has four microphones and two HD cameras as well as a 3D depth sensor and a touch screen. It can recognise faces, speak and hear and move around autonomously. It knows German, Italian and English and if you’re feeling blue it can adapt its personality to suit your mood.

The robot craze is also exciting guests at bionic bars. You’ll find bionic bars in a select number of Royal Caribbean cruise ships. The robot arms that work the bars might not be much use in listening to your relationship woes, but they sure can pour a good cocktail. These robot bartenders can mix just about any combination of your choice – all you have to do is select your mixes on a keypad and “hey presto” your creation will be ready in minutes.

One of the most advanced robots currently in service in travel is being trialled by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Named Spencer, its main role is to guide lost passengers to their departure gates quickly and efficiently at Amsterdam airport, but it can also recognise groups of people and read the group’s emotions and behaviours. It’s equipped with laser eyes and detailed maps of the airport’s interior. It’s even brainy enough to stop and check that no one in the group of passengers following it has been left behind.

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Pepper can recognise faces, speak, hear and move around autonomously! (Image: Jake Curtis)

Are robots here to stay?
A recent survey by travel booking company Travelzoo points to more and more robots in the travel industry in the future. In fact, a recent estimate by the company predicts spending on robots in travel will exceed US $40 billion dollars by 2020 with Asian countries such as South Korea, China and Japan set to lead the market.

Travelzoo Managing Director, Adrian Saunders, says companies are hiring robots to offer a smoother experience for travellers. “Robots can process data faster, they don’t tire, they speak multiple languages and they save time,” says Saunders. “ At the moment they are mostly working in menial tasks that humans don’t necessarily want to do, but there’s no limit to what they’ll be able to do in the future – they can be programmed to do just about anything.” he says.

So far the majority of robots have been employed overseas in Europe, Asia and the US but travel companies in Australia will likely follow suit when trials at major international companies see the technologies adopted throughout their international branches. But will Australians be receptive to robots? Saunders thinks they will:

“If you ask any of the experts it’s inevitable that we’ll see robots in a whole range of jobs within the industry. There will be robot bartenders, robot concierges, hotel porters, robots in airports and in a whole lot of different customer service roles. Australians on the whole are pretty optimistic about them,” he says.

The Travelzoo survey, which questioned 788 Australian travellers online and compared the results to another study of 6211 people from different countries around the world, supports his view, but it also highlights some reservations Australians have. The survey found that two-thirds of Australians thought positively about robots working in roles such as hotel receptionist, but more than half of the participants still found robots quite frightening.

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Could robots be in our homes in the future? (Image: Jill Giardino)

77 per cent of Australians questioned in the survey expected robots to play a big part in our lives going forward and 33 per cent thought that robots would improve our lives.

However 93 per cent of Australians surveyed had doubts about a robot’s ability to perform tasks like showing emotion. The same number of Australians had concerns about robots replacing human jobs. The respondents were also unconvinced that robots would have the ability to understand Australian slang, irony and our sense of humour.

Interestingly the survey also found differences in what the different countries found acceptable as to how robots should look.

Australians agreed with most countries in the original survey in that they preferred robots to look more like machines and less like humans. But they still wanted robots to have human voices. This is contrasted with respondents from China, in which 76 per cent said they wanted robots to look more human.

Saunders cautions about being too concerned with how robots will affect human jobs just yet. “We’re still in the research and development phase and there’s quite a long time before robots can function anything like human staff can,” he says.

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What would you say to Pepper? (Image: Aldebaran Robotics)

There are also quite a few hurdles to work out with the technologies as the staff of the Residence Inn Marriott on Century Boulevard In Los Angeles discovered when their delivery robot, Wally, short- circuited after guests put wet towels in its storage section.

However, Saunders does concede that there will come a time when robots’ artificial intelligence will eventually catch up to human intelligence and when that happens companies may decide to replace humans working in positions involving more complex tasks.

“It opens up a bunch of questions. If we’re making these robots more and more intelligent at some point we’re going to have to teach them things like ethics, but what ethics and who is qualified to teach them ethics? he asks.

Will robots ever be as capable as humans? Only time will tell. But just in case, if you’re heading out on your holidays remember to be kind to your robot butler because someday it may just be your hotel manager.

Feature image: LASS Laboratorie

What do you think the future of travel will be? Let us know in the comments section below.

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