Artificial Intelligence

Where Are Our Robot Butlers?

Robot Butler

It’s fair to say we live in the future.

A vast majority of Americans carry a super-computer in their pockets that can be used as a GPS navigator, a payment method, a source of entertainment and a shopping mall.

Oh, and you can also use it to make phone calls.

Beyond our casual use of technology (that would have seemed like pure science fiction in the 1950s and sorcery in the 1850s), we also have washing machines that order their own detergent, refrigerators that suggest recipes and vacuum cleaners that quietly meander around our feet, continuously fighting the war against dust without any input necessary from an operator.

And that’s just today. Companies are currently experimenting with cars that can drive themselves and packages that can be delivered by autonomous drones smart enough to respond to hand gestures.

The future seems not only clear, but well within our grasp.

Well, with one exception: We don’t have robot butlers.

Sure, we have Alexa and the Google Assistant — not to mention Siri and Bixby — and, yes, they can do a host of amazing things. In fact, as of this week and via the announcement of the winners of the 2018 PYMNTS Voice Challenge with Amazon Alexa, we can confidently assert the amazing things voice-powered artificial intelligence (AI) can do are getting more amazing by the day. We have nothing but good things to say about voice commerce.

But, it’s still no substitute for a robot butler.

If you’re hungry, the Google Assistant, Siri or Alexa can help you find a recipe. Robby the Robot (butler) from the 1956 film “Forbidden Planet” could make you any food you wanted by converting anything into a fully cooked meal for humans.

Any number of voice-activated assistants plug directly into home security systems and send danger alerts. None of them can bring the severity of the danger to life like the robot butler from “Lost in Space” that shouted “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

Voice chatbots don’t have arms to wave.

And sure, Alexa is happy to order you more laundry detergent, dinner, groceries to make dinner or pretty much anything else you could want.

Rosie from “The Jetsons” would shop for groceries for you, prepare your dinner, set the table and do your laundry. She didn’t even need a washing machine to do it, as she had one built in.

She also had wisecracks to offer; though, in fairness, Alexa is credited for being quick with a zinger.

Google Assistant made some major upgrades earlier this year to boost its ability to act as a foreign language translator for users, which is doubtless helpful. But the “Star Wars” robot butler C3PO is fluent in over 6 million forms of communication and he…

Well, actually, C3PO is pretty useless and gets into trouble a lot. You might be better off with Google Assistant if you need a translator, provided Google Assistant still works in a galaxy far, far away.

But other than C3PO, the robot butlers are obviously the innovation we need so every American family can finally have a single answer to the single question that breaks up more marriages than any other: Whose turn is it to do the dishes that have piled up in the sink? (That’s not a joke; dirty dishes are the ranking cause of household chore-related rage among married couples.)

Depending on how you look at the answer, the news on that front is both good and bad.


The Good News: You Can Already Have A Robot Butler …

… if you happen to be staying at the right hotel.

In fact, patrons of the Aloft boutique hotel chain — known for its technology-related enthusiasm — in Cupertino, Miami or Dallas can interact with Botlr, a 3 ft. tall robot butler tasked mainly with delivery assistance, including towels and toiletries, to hotel guests.

Botlr was built by Santa Clarita-based Savioke, whose Relay bot is designed to be the hotel assistant of the future, and is programmed with a destination before it rolls off, using Wi-Fi and 3-D cameras to guide it on its way.

Relay has a few names depending on where it’s working. At Aloft properties, it’s called Botlr, but at L.A.’s Residence Inn by Marriott on Century Boulevard, the same robot is known as “Wally,” and its job is delivering Starbucks coffee to guests who request it.

Jump across the country to Boston’s YOTEL, and you can meet the hotel’s instantiation of a Savioke design: YO2D2.

YO2D2 is not another variation on the Relay under a different name, however. It’s a customized product that stands 3 ft. tall and was created to safely navigate crowded spaces, summon the hotel elevator and interact with guests by way of a touchscreen.

Its tasks include greeting arriving guests, delivering items to rooms and mingling in the first-floor club lounge and rooftop bar. And, yes, mingling does require the robot to dance — according to reports, YO2D2 lives up to its responsibilities.

So, good news: Robot butlers can be previewed for a night or two, as there are some early versions available.

But if you want a Rosie or Robbie the Robot of your own?

Well, then, the news is a bit less encouraging.


The Home Robot Wait

Despite what “The Jetsons” may have told us, it seems having a home bot do our laundry could take a while. Perhaps a long while, according to Popular Science.

The magazine noted the bots hotels are using today are very simple in what they can do — task-wise and in interactions with guests. There’s a good reason for that: Good robotics are incredibly hard to build, because simple motions human beings take for granted are quite complex to mechanically imitate.

Walking upstairs, reaching into a cabinet and picking something out or putting it back, pouring a liquid into a cup, folding — these are all ideal things for a robotic butler to be able to do, but they’re far from easy to program into a machine designed only to do one physical task. Building a machine that can do all of those things and respond to human language or commands?

The challenges seem monumental, and a look at the progress so far at the 2018 International Consumer Electronics Show in January, when robot after robot refused to perform as advertised, illustrated the problem of just how hard this stuff is to build.

Even once that initial hurdle is overcome, there’s the issue of expense. The most promising variation on the technology, Aeolus — a humanoid robot (which can vacuum and respond to fetching commands) — is only in the working prototype phase and is forecast to be “absurdly expensive” when it hits the market in a few years.

And, of course, there’s a psychological issue as well.

Consumers may like the idea of robot butlers, but they’re also kind of freaked out by them — and sometimes feel weird talking to them.

LG learned this last year when they dispatched five of their Guide Robots at South Korea’s Incheon International Airport. During their time on the job, LG noticed something strange: Despite the fact that the robots are designed to talk to people using natural voice processing, people didn’t talk to the robots. Although they would ask for directions (via touchscreen), very few let the robots guide them to their destinations.

“There are still psychological barriers in using voice recognition and also following robots around for directions,” LG’s Head of Research for Life Robots Jaewon Chang told a reporter at CES. “They feel this awkwardness and some degree of hesitation.”

We imagine that feeling of awkwardness would be magnified if one were interacting with a robot in their bathroom at home, as opposed to at an airport.

And so, alas, it seems we may not have a Rosie to call our own for a while — probably not until robots are designed to make everyone feel a bit more at ease.

Until then, you can always ask Alexa to tell you a joke.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.