Alibaba looks to arm hotels, cities with its AI technology

Chinese internet giant is touting the use of artificial intelligence technology to arm drivers with real-time data on road conditions as well as robots in the hospitality sector, where they can deliver meals and laundry to guests.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

HANGZHOU, CHINA--Alibaba Group has announced plans to launch artificial intelligence (AI) robots for key service industries, starting with hospitality, with the aim to improve efficiencies and better meet consumer demand for faster response time.

Driven out of Alibaba's AI product development unit, A.I. Labs, the new service bots would be available for deployment in the hospitality sector from next month, the Chinese vendor said at its annual computing conference held here this week.

Dubbed Space Egg and standing at less than one metre, the robot is built with aluminium casing and suited up with multi-sensor data and compute capabilities to provide faster responses.

Amongst these, it has a semantic map, autonomous navigation system to identify and avoid obstacles as it moves, and communication systems to control elevators. Its walk can reach one metre per second.

It also is armed with facial recognition technology to identify and verify identities as well as supports voice command, enabling guests to speak to the robot. Its responses are powered by AliGenie, which is the same software behind Alibaba's smart speaker, Tmall Genie.

Alibaba A.I. Labs' general manager Chen Lijuan said the new robots aimed to "bridge the gap" between guest needs and their expected response time. Describing the robot as the next evolution towards smart hotels, Chen said it tapped AI technology to address painpoints in the hospitality sector, such as improving service efficiencies.

Alibaba is hoping the robot can ease hotels' dependence on human labour by fulfilling a range of tasks, including delivering meals and taking the laundry to guests.

The robot currently is being trialled at a hotel and will be assessed for deployment in other service environments, including restaurants, office buildings, and hospitals.

Citing figures from the International Federation of Robotics, Alibaba said the market for service robots was expected to grow between 20 percent and 25 percent from 2018 to 2020. Professional services for the segment were projected to be worth US$27 billion.

Alibaba this week also said it had set up a semiconductor business to produce its own AI and quantum processors. Driven by the company's R&D arm Damo Academy, these efforts would see the launch of Alibaba's first in-house developed AI chip, called AliNPU, in the second half of next year.

At the conference show floor, the Chinese internet giant showcased several applications of its AI technology, several of which focused on smart city management. One in particular looks to arm drivers with real-time data on road conditions, so they can more safely navigate through traffic.

The system calls for the deployment of roadside units, which are equipped with cameras and radars to identify objects and obstacles on the roads that may pose a safety risk to drivers. While the camera captures the image of the object, the radar is used to measure the distance of the object from the vehicle. This data then is transmitted in real-time to cars that are outfitted with Alibaba's AliOS platform.

The data also can be uploaded to Alibaba Cloud to facilitate a city's urban planning.

Developed to support mobile, industrial, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, Alibaba's AliOS today is installed in more than 400,000 web-connected cars in China.

Based in Singapore, Eileen Yu reported for ZDNet from The Computing Conference 2018 in Hangzhou, China, on the invitation of Alibaba Group.

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