This week, Anna Fifield, The Washington Post’s Beijing bureau chief, found this out firsthand during a reporting trip to Shanghai. While checking into a local hotel, she said, she noticed a slender trash-can-shaped robot in the lobby, its cylindrical body plastered with a tiny human-ish face. The hotel’s receptionist told Fifield that if she needed anything, she could request a robot delivery.
The next morning, after asking for more coffee pods, she opened her hotel room door and, to her amusement, found herself face-to-face with the delivery bot.
She posted a short video showing the human-robot interaction that followed on Twitter, and it quickly received nearly 7,000 retweets, a testament, perhaps, to the public’s growing curiosity about what life will look like when it’s populated by robots.
After greeting the machine, Fifield located her coffee pods — inside a grocery-bag-size compartment that was concealed by a sliding door. The door opened when she pressed a graphic on an illuminated touchpad. The entire sequence vaguely brings to mind using a noisy office photocopier in the mid-1990s, only without the looming threat of a paper jam.
Though potentially confusing to English-speaking audiences because of the language barrier, Fifield — accustomed to navigating complex social interactions as a longtime foreign correspondent — said the brief engagement felt “surprisingly natural.”
“When the robot arrived at my hotel door, it called my room phone and told me, in Chinese and English, that it was at my door,” Fifield wrote after being reached by email. “Then when I went out there, it was waiting and was easy to use. It said in Chinese: ‘You are the cutest person in the whole universe. Do you want to take a selfie with me? Let’s say ‘eggplant’ together.’ (eggplant in Chinese is “qiezi” which sounds like ‘cheese.’)”
She added: “When it was leaving, it said: ‘I hope my service leaves you in a good mood for a century.’”
We’ve seen a number of hotels experiment with robotics in China, Japan and South Korea. In the United States, the trend is beginning to catch on as well. Marriott has implemented rolling robot butler service at several locations, and YOTEL Boston has a robot on staff named “YO2D2,” according to Lonely Planet.
Despite a handful of new robots roaming hotel hallways around the United States, Steve Choe, general manager of the InterContinental Los Angeles Century City, told the Los Angeles Times in 2016 that he’s skeptical about the machine’s long-term acceptance among American customers.
“With robots, you don’t get personalized service,” Choe said. “Those are the touches people still want.”
Will the same assessment ring true in Asia? It may be too early to render a verdict. Asked whether the Chinese have become more accustomed to robots than have people in the United States, Fifield said she thinks both countries are still adjusting to the new technology.
“Yes there are robots in restaurants and hotels in this part of the world but they’re still a rarity, and still a novelty,” she wrote. “I think the other people in the hotel were also getting a kick out of the cheery little robot.”