Robotic customer service and moral dilemmas

Robots are making headlines in a variety of industries from transportation to hotels with none perhaps as dramatic as driver-less cars, a phenomenon that appears certain to enter commercial use sooner than later. While much of the news has been focused on the many positives of driver-less cars that range from giving mobility to the elderly to reducing traffic jams based on intelligent technology that re-routes cars very little has been published on the potential pitfalls.

The Financial Times picks up on the foregoing with a report on ethical and moral issues that are being discussed if not anticipated. In a hypothetical example cited "a self-driving car is ferrying its owner to the office. Suddenly, a school bus, traveling in the other direction, veers out of control and into its path. In a split second, the self-driving car must make a seemingly impossible choice: continue driving straight on and risk injuring several children, or swerve and possibly hit one of the cyclists."

The ethical aspects to robots pervading our lives was, however, raised more than a few years ago in a 2011  book titled "Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics" where the authors note that robots are often tasked with the "3Ds" of life: jobs that are are dull, dirty, or dangerous.

Innovators in the hospitality space, however, seem to think that robots are capable of more, far more, including providing service. That at least is the promise of Japan's Hen-na hotel in Nagasaki which put out a press release last month that garnered much international attention.  When the hotel opens later this summer, the (all female) robots at the front office will greet (in four languages) check-in and escort guests to their rooms.  Other equally remarkably human looking robots will function as porters and housekeepers. All the robots are being made by Japanese company Kokoro courtesy of a Japanese government sponsored initiative.

The growth in use of robots in automobiles, entertainment, military and health care is exponential and its entry into hospitality is perhaps only to be expected with the financial premise of Kokoro's robotic hotel being the lure of an employee-less hotel. But what is left out of the Kokoro's press release is the slew of ethical and moral issues that are likely to confront the entire industry.

The issues, as yet unaddressed, include: What does replacing the entire housekeeping staff with robots mean for customer relations?  Can a robotic front desk agent discern when it is okay to make an exception to give a key card or reprogram a lock for a guest who has misplaced his/her card and/or smartphone for entering a guest room? Will a robot bartender shut out a customer with a higher tolerance for wine after 3 glasses assuming that to be the threshold? In the trial-lawyer driven culture of the US the legal consequences of a misstep whether intentional or not has huge implications. And the (negative) implications for employment are perhaps even greater.




Published by

Vijay Dandapani

Co-founder and president of a New York based hotel company for 24 years. Grew the firm to five hotels in Manhattan and also developed a greenfield project at MacArthur airport, New York. Speaker at numerous prestigious forums including Economy Hotels World Asia, Lodging Conference, NYU, Columbia University Real Estate Roundtable, Baruch College's Zicklin School and ALIS. President and ceo of New York City Hotel Association since January 2017.