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Hilton Hotels tries out a robot concierge

Hilton has introduced a pilot program with a robotic concierge that can answer questions and direct guests at one of the hotel chain's Virginia locations. 

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Visitors to the Hilton Hotel in McLean, Va. meet "Connie," a robot concierge named after Conrad Hilton and powered by IBM Watson and WayBlazer. Connie is the first robotic concierge Hilton has introduced.

Green Buzz Agency/Feature Photo Service for IBM

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Concierge is getting a robotic makeover at one Hilton Hotels location.  

The McLean, Va., Hilton is the site of a pilot program featuring a robot concierge. The new hire stands in at two-and-a-half feet tall and has been placed on the desk beside human reception staff. More than just a shiny piece of equipment, the robot’s brain is packed with artificial intelligence.

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Connie, named after Hilton founder Conrad Hilton, is a partnership between Hilton Worldwide and IBM. The brains behind the robot are IBM’s artificial intelligence program Watson and another partner program called WayBlazer, imbuing the new concierge with enough AI to carry on conversations with guests and answer questions about the local area.

Is the future of Hilton concierge robotic? Definitely not, according to Jim Holthouser, Hilton vice president of global brands.

This isn’t about reducing staff,” he told USA Today. “That’s not where our minds are whatsoever.”

But that doesn’t mean Connie is just for show either.

The AI within Connie is two-fold and geared especially for hospitality. The Watson program running in Connie allows the robot to understand conversational questions – meaning guests can speak to Connie just like they would human staff and the robot can reply back, according to the Hilton press release. The WayBlazer AI program is designed to allow Connie to learn the local area, make restaurant suggestions to guests, and speak about upcoming local events.

Connie’s body, though small, is also designed to help it serve. The body is based on the Nao robot designed by Aldebaran, with fully functional arms and legs and eyes that change to express humanlike emotions.

"When it is asked ‘where’s the elevator?,' it says it’s down the hall to the left while pointing down the hall to the left,” Rob High, IBM’s Watson chief technology officer, told USA Today.

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For now, that makes the robot perfect for answering guests' questions, but leaves it far from the capabilities of a human concierge. But with its current capacity for conversation and ability to learn, Connie’s presence is an early marker in how robots may soon permeate mainstream life.

Less sophisticated AI robots than Connie are being used increasingly as comfort companions for children and the elderly and there is growing potential for robots could behave like pets, The Christian Science Monitor previously reported.

Many scientists are also recognizing the risks that are inherent in integrating AI further into the human workforce.

In mid-February, The Christian Science Monitor’s Jason Thomson reported on the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where a panel addressed concerns that AI will have an adverse effect on human employment.

Artificial intelligence “will march into our society” over the next few years, the panel concluded. Some industries, like driving, would be fully automated, and a large swath of other industries will also be vulnerable.