LAS CRUCES – Pepper is six feet tall, but he has no problem interacting with people towering over him. He proved that in the fall of 2020 when he made his debut as a host at New Mexico State University’s student-run 100 West Café – although he raised a few eyebrows.
That’s because Pepper is the world’s first humanoid robot programmed to recognize human emotions and interact with people through conversation and a touchscreen. He was part of an exploratory study at NMSU evaluating robotic interactions with humans, a collaboration between Betsy Stringam from the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management and Marlena Fraune from the Department of Psychology. Her research team also included two PhD students, Rebecca Skulsky and Harrison Preusse.
“We have been able to do things automatically or automatically since almost ‘The Jetsons’. In the hotel industry, customers have to accept this as a level of service, ”said Stringam. “With this study, we wanted to see how Pepper interacts with people and whether consumers are ready to accept the service of a robot.”
As the host, Pepper checked in customers for the dining room and processed takeaway orders. He also danced at the push of a button and gave general information about the 100 West Café and its menu. While some customers enjoyed their interactions with Pepper, others found it hard to sell.
“There was a general lack of trust. I don’t know if that’s because people saw too many robots in sci-fi movies, but we were surprised people refused to interact with them, ”said Stringam, who hopes to do the research at the Advance over time.
For Stringam, the Pepper project represents a piece in an area of greater interest that focuses on hospitality technology. She is part of a group of researchers from across the country studying the impact of technology on the hospitality workforce in a project led by Carnegie Mellon University.
As a Digital Faculty Fellow of the NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, Stringam played a pivotal role in helping the faculty transition to online learning fueled by the coronavirus pandemic. She also wrote a chapter on hotel and guest room technology for the upcoming hospitality and tourism information technology textbook.
“In the industry, we are making technology leaps and bounds for a number of reasons,” she said.
For one thing, the technology is cheaper and more reliable, and therefore more desirable, said Stringam. The pandemic has also pushed hospitality companies to adopt new technologies at warp speed to meet consumer demand for contactless experiences, she adds. She believes that workers should adopt, not fear, technology in the workplace as a tool to make their jobs easier.
“Technology can be fun and it can help do our job better,” she said. “I don’t think the goal at the end of the day is to replace the worker. It just gives employees the freedom to do better work. “
Fraune, a cognitive scientist researching human-robot interaction, agrees with Stringam.
“There are some things machines can do better than humans, but there are many things humans can do better than machines,” she said. “Things like climbing stairs, opening a door, or recognizing sarcasm in a person’s voice are things that most adults can easily do, but that robots have endless problems with.”
Fraune added that workplace teams work best when teammates play to their strengths and coordinate with one another.
“That’s what we’re looking for in human-machine teaming,” she said. “If a robot can do the tedious, boring, repetitive, or cumbersome tasks that are often boring or even dangerous to humans, it should give those people the opportunity to do the more interesting, engaging, and safer tasks.”
Fraunes Labor has partnered with NASA, the Toyota Research Institute, the United States Air Force and researchers from universities in Germany, Portugal and Japan to find solutions for integrating human-machine teams and improving people’s lives .
Stringam said she is keen to address the ever-changing role of technology in the hospitality industry in her courses at NMSU. For example, she has her undergraduate students design a hospitality robot, much like Pepper, while her graduate students write technology proposals that focus on the impact on the workforce.
“HRTM is lucky enough to have Dr. To have Stringam at the forefront of this interdisciplinary research and teaching on hospitality technology, particularly its role for the workforce, ”said HRTM Director Jean Hertzman. “It’s important that we incorporate it into all of our HRTM courses to prepare our students to lead the future of the hospitality and tourism industry.”
Eye on Research is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s feature was written by Carlos Andres López from Marketing and Communications. He can be reached at 575-646-1955 or by email at email@example.com.