//Business travel report: AI

Business travel report: AI

Hospitality groups are now using artificial intelligence to power everything from call centres to robobutlers, writes Jenny Southan, business travel editor.

Last year I visited IBM’s research laboratory in Zurich, where they are working on Watson, an evolving artificial intelligence (AI)platform that is being trained how to think like a human. From weather forecasting
to building chatbots, its applications are seemingly limitless and available to any individual or business wanting to experiment with it. Watson’s abilities include image recognition (essential in self-driving cars, for example), natural language processing and translation, and even emotion analysis. 

Over the past couple of years a wide variety of travel companies have started employing Watson, the world’s leading AI, to perform unique tasks: Japan Rail East has been dabbling with it to analyse customer inquiries at call centres; Korean Air has been using Watson’s mighty brain to crunch historical fleet maintenance records; the travel search engine Zumata has integrated Watson’s cognitive services to improve the hotel booking experience by allowing people to converse with a virtual agent; and Hilton has piloted Connie, a robot concierge that is able to talk to guests.

Several other hotel groups have been exploring the benefits of robotic staff. Marriott’s Aloft has a robot butler called  “Botlr” that delivers amenities to guest rooms in about half a dozen US hotels, while M Social in Singapore has Aura and Ausca, who do front-of-house work and even cooking. Also in Singapore, Shangri-La’s youth-oriented sub-brand Hotel Jen has employed Jeno and Jena at its Orchardgateway and Tanglin properties to help with room service requests. Standing at about one metre tall, they trundle along at 2.5kph and have sensors that allow them to use lifts and escalators. Last November, a report from McKinsey & Company suggested that by 2030, as many as 800 million workers around the globe could be replaced by robots. 

Within the online world, artificial intelligence is being used to make interacting with the internet more humanlike. The travel metasearch engine Skyscanner says it is harnessing AI to “create a marketplace for each traveller that is personalised to suit their needs and preferences”, based on data generated by that individual. In 2016 it led the way in launching chatbots on Facebook Messenger and Skype, as well as a voice-activated “skill” for Amazon Alexa. Skyscanner says: “Travellers can  ask for any flight itinerary, as well as get  inspiration and suggestions for where
they can go.” 

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In January, Heathrow Airport began allowing customers to ask Alexa about flight delays. Uber, National Rail, Ryanair, Virgin Trains, Expedia and easyJet also provide voice-activated services via Amazon’s smart home speakers, while the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas has installed them as command centres in every one of its 4,748 rooms – if you want to close the curtains, just ask. Google, too, has been investing heavily in voice recognition, with its Home speaker acting as a similar kind of digital assistant. In theory, for the time-pressed business traveller, these are welcome innovations. 

SITA’s Air Transport IT Trends Insights 2017 report suggests that more than 50 per cent of airlines are to adopt major AI programmes by 2020. In April, the UK government announced a £1 billion deal to put Britain at the forefront of artificial intelligence development and build its status as an AI research hotspot. But with fears around the erosion of  privacy and the rise of the machines, was Stephen Hawking on to something when he warned that the birth of AI could be the “worst event in the history of our civilisation”? It is hard to be too afraid of cute robo-butlers taking control of hotels, but we are in the early days of experimentation. 

John Rogers, senior vice-president of brands and franchise ops for Hilton in EMEA, says that rolling out robo-staff across its properties might not be a priority. “While robotics continues to grow and develop, we maintain that service from knowledgeable team members is still at the core of what we do – we are in the business of people serving people.” Even Skyscanner admits that AI cannot always compensate for the human touch when it comes to travel. “We believe it’s about maintaining the correct balance between making things more effective and delivering value to people through a more personalised and frictionless search experience. There will always be a place for high-quality, caring human interaction.”