TALKING COMPUTERS. TO many of the Boomer generation, the concept may recall disturbing thoughts of HAL 9000, the murderous machine in the film “2001 Space Odyssey” that refused the command to “open the pod bay doors” for its human master. In today’s real world, hotel guests increasingly may come to take such AI technology for granted the friendly disembodied voice that orders their room service.
Artificial intelligence is weaving into average human existence more and more thanks to voice-activated helpers like Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri.
While hotels using the guest-facing technology must add specific skills and brand adaptations, a new AI appliance named Angie caters specifically to hotels and their guests with virtually no front-loading by either party.
The technology takes AI a step further through easy, seamless integration. Soon AI in hotels will be a natural part of doing business, say users and creators.
Beyond the novelty of checking the local weather, Angie Technology’s CEO and founder Ted Helvey predicts AI will become the be-all and do-all for hotel guests as well as back-office functions.
A recent study by Hotel Technology backs his theory. Of the hoteliers who responded to the annual survey, 70 percent said AI and voice-enabled devices is the most significant emerging technology to impact the hotel industry.
Helvey foresees a melding of guest-room gadgets and bring-your-own devices. “All these things need to be controlled, and we believe the only way to control them effectively and seamlessly is with a device in the room,” he said.
The Sheraton West Port Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, has been testing the year-old Angie device to allow guests to control their rooms’ lighting, temperature and TVs. Angie also helps guests connect with hotel staff.
“Guests still want to see that human interaction, but they want it to be streamlined so they don’t need to go through multiple people until they’re connected to the right person – and that’s what we’re seeing Angie do for us,” said Mitch Bolen, the hotel’s general manager. “She’s taking them right to the source – which also helps us better streamline our services and make our staff more efficient. It frees them up to focus on more personal guest interaction.”
Easy to Talk To
Angie is the result Helvey’s 20-year career in developing technology for the hospitality sector. He is inspired by the accessibility of voice-activated technology. “It’s such a natural interface,” he said.
Angie was derived partly from previous tech evolutions Helvey observed, such as the introduction of Amazon TV into hotels after that technology had become popular in-home use.
“While it’s a great consumer device, it just didn’t work in an enterprise environment,” he said. “When I see an Echo installed in a hotel room, I smile and think back on the Amazon TV days.”
Echo’s voice, named Alexa, has a very broad base of things it is trying to do, Helvey said, whereas Angie focuses on functions most likely to be important to guests.
Angie also is programmed to understand the thousands of ways hotel guests can say what they want her to do, such as asking for room service and checking in for flights. Guests also want control over the device; they want Angie to speak only when spoken to.
“A lot of these things are designed with guests in mind,” Helvey said. That’s why Angie has a touchscreen as well as voice-activated technology. “Everything had to work if somebody doesn’t want to use voice,” he said. “Generally speaking, we’re anticipating that people will be experiencing this for the first time.”
The interaction has to be as natural as possible. People who use Alexa on a regular basis eventually become trained on what to say to get the best response from the device. “For the hotel guest, we have to assume they have no training,” he said.
Guests can use Angie with other devices, and Angie can interface with room-control systems. The device is cloud managed, and hotels can use it to track which of their rooms are occupied and which may be ready for cleaning and turnover.
Security is of critical importance in Angie’s design, Helvey said. That includes blocking the technology company’s operators from being able to directly access the individual devices. The company, however, occasionally needs to communicate with each device, so they are equipped with encrypted digital “doorbells.” “They wait to hear if they’re needed,” Helvey said. “Then they come back with another encrypted message saying, ‘How may I help you?’
“This type of security has never been broken,” he said. “We think we’re pretty secure.”
As for concerns guests may have about having a device with a microphone in their room, Helvey said it only listens for its name before actively monitoring guests’ conversations. Angie has privacy settings that allow guests to turn off its voice control and microphone.
Angie can operate with an ethernet connection or Wi-Fi. Once installed it automatically sets itself up.
Each Angie device sends a status report every five minutes to the company’s cloud. If two check-ins in a row are missed, the company’s service technicians are alerted. If the problem is with the hardware, they notify the hotel that the unit may need to be replaced. Again, the process is made as simple as possible.
“You can’t have devices that require onsite tech support, because it’s not there,” Helvey said.
The second generation of Angie features a larger, brighter screen visible from different angles. It is designed to operate with any level of Wi-Fi thanks to a 360-degree receptor. Helvey said the device is intended to be “future proof,” meaning it will still be useful in 10 years or more.
By year’s end, Helvey expects the unit will be installed in more than 100 properties throughout the U.S. Programmed only to speak English, the company is working on inputting other languages, so Angie can translate and respond across multiple languages for multiple guests.
The Quiet Ones
The march of AI in all industries goes beyond the upfront, whizz-bang technology of devices like Angie. Smart programs also are helping businesses operate more efficiently behind the scenes, according to “How to Leverage Artificial Intelligence in P2P,” a whitepaper from Coupa Software.
AI programs are used to crunch data in ways that help companies save money in the management of their supply chains, the Coupa whitepaper said. Primarily, they help identify and improve sourcing, structure data on spending into useful formats and provide a better understanding a company’s supplier base.
“Not only can AI be used to find trends and suggest routine purchases, AI engines can examine all of your transactions and see if you and your employees are buying a lot of the same goods and services off contract or as expensed items,” the whitepaper says. “If it finds a pattern, it can recommend that you issue an RFP or run an auction to buy this particular service or item in larger quantity from fewer vendors at better prices. It can also help you map out what you’ve bought from the same supplier to negotiate more effectively when renewals or expansion of contracts are due.”
The new technology creates “community intelligence” in business service management in the way apps like the traffic tracker Waze helps drivers. Waze uses input from multiple users, not just static maps, to improve the accuracy of the service.
“With the large sets of data available for AI-powered tools, BSM is one area where we may see the biggest ‘wins’ from AI,” according to Coupa. “Beyond taking on transactional data processing, AI tools are starting to replicate the work of highly skilled procurement professionals.”