This Watson-powered robot concierge is rethinking the hotel industry

At just two feet tall, Connie -- named for Hilton founder and hotel magnate Conrad Hilton -- combines the vast cognitive computing power of Watson with the French-made humanoid robot Nao.

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The hospitality industry is no stranger to technology. For years hotels and restaurants have toyed with a variety of interactive experiences in an attempt to innovate on customer service and differentiate from competitors.

For the most part, hospitality technology has come in the form of flashy, digital displays or touchscreen kiosks. But even then, the majority of customer interactions are still performed the old fashioned way -- with actual human interaction.

Which is what makes the latest incarnation of IBM Watson's machine learning system so notable.

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Last week, IBM announced a pilot program in partnership with hotel chain Hilton Worldwide to test Connie, a Watson-enabled robot concierge.

At just two feet tall, Connie -- named for Hilton founder and hotel magnate Conrad Hilton -- combines the vast cognitive computing power of Watson (bolstered by domain knowledge from WayBlazer) with the French-made humanoid robot Nao.

The resulting bot is capable of walking, pointing, understanding and responding to human emotions, and answering guest queries ranging from room locations to restaurant recommendations. As the pilot progresses, Connie will continue to learn the ins and outs of the hotel business, which will significantly expand its capabilities.

Connie is not the first robotic hotel worker. The Aloft Hotel in Cupertino has a Botlr Bellhop, which delivers room service, and the Japanese-inspired Yotel in New York has a giant robotic arm that stores suitcases for guests (because, frankly, the rooms are too small to fit them). And in Nagasaki, Japan, the Hen-na Hotel is almost fully manned by robots, with just ten human beings on staff.

"Ours is a very mature and competitive industry with a lot of brands," said Jim Holthouser, executive vice president for global brands at Hilton. "To be able to stand out, attract and retain customers and to earn loyalty means you have to be in constant innovation mode."

Holthouser checked off a list of goals that Hilton has with the Connie pilot: to decrease customer pain points, solve operational problems for hotel employees, and to surprise and delight customers with the unexpected.

"Connie and robotics check all three of those boxes," he said. "We think there is a lot of potential with this."

For IBM, Connie marks the first time the company has developed a Watson-enabled robot for the hospitality market. While it's not exactly breaking new ground, IBM sees Connie as capable of having a powerful impact on a broad range of people.

"I'm still not convinced people have picked up on what these robots are doing in terms of the human/machine interface," said Rob High, VP and CTO of IBM Watson.

High said that because Connie possesses seemingly natural conversational abilities -- such as vocalization, amplification, tone, punctuation and body posturing -- it allows us humans to walk away with a better understanding of the information we were looking for, as opposed to if that information had come from words on a screen.

"The robot is taking advantage of all this additional information and context, and that is fundamentally different," High said.

"That is an advantage to Hilton," he added. "But what is really empowering with it is that it's just beginning to tap into a human/machine relationship that can only be tied to cognitive computing."

Connie has been active for a little more than a month at Hilton McLean in Virginia. Holthouser said the robot is just one of "30 or 40 tests we have going on" as part of the company's innovation initiatives. Some of the other experiments involve Amazon and Google, he said, although not all are expected to play out.

As for Connie's future, Holthouser said the pilot would go on for as long as it takes, until the company decides whether to go forward with more Connies in more hotels, to limit the high-tech concierge to just a few prime Hilton locations, or to scrap the project all together.

"This is not going to be a two or three month test, we are just on the front end of it," he said. "There are probably ways of using the robot that we haven't even thought of yet. So a lot of this is to play and dream and see what is there."

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