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Headed on vacation? You're apt to encounter a robot

From delivering toothbrushes at hotels to acting as museum docents, robots are a big attraction—and you have a pretty good chance of interacting with a real one this summer.

A family walks into the visitor center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the kids immediately dash ahead, eager to ask questions about which exhibits to see and where to go. They aren't this excited to talk to just anyone, though.

They're eager to interact with a robot.  

Pepper, a 4-foot-tall interactive humanoid robot from SoftBank Robotics, greets visitors who come to the center from all over the world. Using cameras and sensors, the robot can tell when someone is close by and turns its head to greet them, offering to interact. Pepper answers frequently asked questions, such as where exhibits are set up or where the bathroom is. It tells stories, shows videos, plays games, and of course, poses for selfies.

"Definitely, people come to the visitor center because of Pepper," says Savannah Loebig, program assistant at the Smithsonian Institution, which is the world's largest museum, education, and research complex, with 19 museums and the National Zoo. "Sometimes if I'm a little late getting Pepper out to the floor, I'll get a call, saying, 'People are asking where Pepper is.' People hear or see Pepper and they'll run up to see what's going on, especially young children."

There are four Peppers now in four parts of the Smithsonian, which is just one of the places where people out and about this summer could see and actually interact with a robot. 

Pepper at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

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Robot encounters

Robotic devices are no longer just huge arms that weld together car parts. Robots increasingly are cute walking or rolling devices that can act as tour guides, helpers, an extra set of eyes and ears, and even concierges. And that means when people are vacationing or even just getting ready for a cookout this summer, they're more likely than ever to encounter a real, working robot.

If the idea of opening your hotel door or rounding the corner in a supermarket and seeing a robot motoring your way excites the inner geek in you, this could be your best summer yet, because a world with robots is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

"Let's face it, people are curious creatures. We want to touch robots. We want to get in their way and see how they react," says John Santagate, research director at IDC. "When I talk with these folks, it's not just, 'Look what this robot can do.' It's that people want to interact with it."

He adds, "It's still early days in a lot of use cases, whether the robots are in big stores or hotels. Of course, we're going to be curious about encountering them. That's part of the fun."

Of course, kids and teens lucky enough to go to a robotics camp or a STEM-based camp that focuses on robots, like the ones at the Kennedy Space Center, can encounter robots and perhaps learn how to program them and work along beside them.

For the rest of us, though, we might be lucky to meet a robot delivering our order of coffee and donuts or a late-night pizza as some food businesses try out robotics to supplement their human delivery people. For instance, robots from Starship Technologies are delivering food and drinks to the more than 40,000 students, faculty, and staff on the George Mason University campus in Fairfax, Virginia. You can't always expect a humanoid robot to deliver your iced coffee and pizzas, though. The robots motoring around this college campus look like white coolers on wheels.

Robots on spill patrol in supermarkets

Marty patrols aisles for problems enabling employees to spend more time with customers. Credit: Stop & Shop

So, where else might you encounter a robot on your summer travels?

Well, if you are not venturing far from home this summer, you might see a robot while you're picking up hamburgers and hot dogs for a backyard cookout.

Stop & Shop, a chain of 416 supermarkets in the northeastern U.S., has been rolling out robots since last year in slightly more than half of its stores. Working with Retail Business Services and Badger Technologies, the retailer uses the robots to free up human employees to spend more time working directly with customers. The robots—6-foot-tall pillars adorned with googly eyes—make beeping noises as they roll from aisle to aisle looking for spills that need to be cleaned up. 

According to Jennifer Brogan, director of communications for Stop & Shop, people have come to love the robots, which have been nicknamed Marty.

"Our store manager in Pembroke, Massachusetts, has several customers who have told him they can't go shopping anywhere else because their kids want to see Marty every week," says Brogan. The company has also brought the robot to a local school to get kids excited about robots and science. "Customers love taking selfies with Marty."

Robot hotel concierges

If you visit an Aloft hotel, you may encounter Botlr, a robotic butler. Credit: Zenique Hotels

Seeing robots also can be part of the fun of a summer trip.

Some hotels, among them certain establishments in the Aloft Hotel chain, are using intelligent machines to act as robotic concierges, delivering small items like toothbrushes, extra towels, or snacks directly to guests' rooms. The Aloft Hotel in Dublin, California, for instance, has a robot called Botlr that motors around the lobby getting guests' attention. When called on, though, the robot really goes to work. 

If a customer requests extra soap, for instance, it can be placed in the robot's storage bin, which closes and locks. The robot then communicates with the elevator so it can take the lift to the appropriate floor. It then autonomously navigates to the right hotel room and uses the phone system to alert the guest that it has arrived. When the appropriate hotel room door opens, a sensor on the robot tells it to open its storage bin so the guest can take what they need.

"Lots of people order a soda they don't even want just to see the robot in action," says Rupesh Patel, president and chief operating officer of Zenique Hotels, which owns the Aloft in Dublin. "It's a novelty. It doesn't really save costs, but it offers our guests a unique experience and our guests post on social media about it a lot. Locals also come to our bar to enjoy drinks…and to see the robot. People will come into the bar and say, 'Hey, where's that robot?' It adds to the whole experience."

And at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, a luxury resort, casino, and hotel on the Las Vegas Strip,  guests are having some fun "chatting" with Rose—what the resort refers to as its "resident mischief maker."

Rose is a chatbot. She doesn't have a body so she's not moving around the lobby or making deliveries. What Rose is doing is having a bit of fun with hotel guests, while offering them some handy information. 

"Guests have a lot of fun with Rose, and her tone really encourages witty banter between her and the guests," says Lindsey Riggs, director of digital marketing at The Cosmopolitan, which has more than 3,000 guest rooms. "Guests highly engage, sending her [an average of] five messages or more during their stay. She was designed with a sassy tone of voice. Guests have a lot of fun with her, and that's what we wanted."

The hotel's chatbot is programmed to interact with people via text messaging using a human-like conversational tone. Riggs says people often ask Rose where to eat and drink, how to find the hotel's pool area, and how to get special finds, like a caviar taco. Of course, it's Vegas, so the chatbot also has gotten marriage proposals and has been asked to make out with people who might have found the hotel's hideaway bar. Listen to Rose here.

Robots doing math at museums

Vacationers headed to New York City could find themselves being followed around by a swarm of robots.

At the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan, visitors can interact with about two dozen shoe-sized glowing robots underneath a clear floor they can walk on. Using sensors and motion control and positioning systems, the swarm reacts to people's presence and either chases after them en masse or zooms away as people move on the floor.  

"The point of the robot swarm exhibit is to ultimately explore how it's possible, using mathematic algorithms, for robots to coordinate with each other to work on a task," says Geva Patz, a technical adviser to the museum. "The exhibit has pride of place on the lower floor of the museum. It's in constant use. People can't resist robots. One of the nice parts is that it's interactive.… We want people to think it's fun and cool, but underneath, they've absorbed an idea, like maybe mathematics isn't as horrible and terrifying as we tend to think."

The National Museum of Mathematics's robot swarm exhibit shows how, using mathematic algorithms, robots can coordinate to work on a task. Credit: National Museum of Mathematics

The robot swam up close. Credit: National Museum of Mathematics

And closer... Credit: National Museum of Mathematics

The National Museum of Mathematics has another robot exhibit as well. Called Hoop Curves, the exhibit has a tube-shaped robot that shoots free throws for visitors based on information they program, like angles and speed. Of course, people can shoot free throws themselves, but Patz says visitors prefer to have the robot do the shooting twice as much as they want to shoot on their own.

Robots are the attraction

"People have to remember that 'Terminator' is science fiction," says Patz. "As robots become more part of our society, it's important for people to become more comfortable with them, whether they're drones or driving through our city streets. When you reach out with interesting exhibits, the robots pull people in. Robots excite people and make them curious."

At the Smithsonian, Pepper the robot is working in the visitor center, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. 

"Pepper was really an experiment to see how robot technology can enhance visitor experiences," says Loebig. "We learned that Pepper is a really big attraction. People will go wherever she is, and then they'll see an exhibit while they're there. People are really excited about the robots."

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.