From Fetch the dog in Vegas to Heligraf at WashPo, AI enhances user experience

By Kathleen Coleman

S-R Media

Spokane, Washington, USA


The day one flies home from Las Vegas can be filled with regrets: Why did we not ride the High Roller Observation Wheel at The LINQ? Why did we visit Fashion Show Mall post-Don Sandia (tequila, watermelon and lime, served inside a hollowed-out cucumber) consumption and purchase a sequined ultra violet shorty jumpsuit? Why did we buy tickets for the early “up with Jesus” Gospel Brunch at House of Blues instead of the later, more civilised time slot?

Not wanting further regrets upon departure from Vdara Hotel and Spa, my husband and I, prompted by a suggestion from the Krave tablet perched bedside, decided to try robot dog room service. We punched in an order for two large coffees, one with Splenda, the other with three Stevia packets. Because, who doesn’t want to see a robot doggie?

We waited about 10 minutes. The room phone rang, alerting us that “Fetch” the robot dog waited outside our door. We retrieved (see what I did there?) our coffee from his carrying compartment.

Fetch’s interactive screen asked how our stay was; we awarded five stars. His screen read “Yay!” and Fetch asked if we needed anything else. We said no. He wagged/shimmied, then told us, “I’m going home now.” Off he went.

Fetch and his buddy Jett are not the first robots to serve customers in Vegas. Before the dog-bots’ arrival this summer, robot bartenders from the company Tipsy Robot poured drinks for more than a year at Planet Hollywood Miracle Mile bars. And (I kid you not) pole dancing robots made appearances at Sapphire’s gentleman’s club during the Consumer Electronics Show last January.

And, in an effort to maximise revenue from low-end but still desirable blackjack players who want to wager minimums of US$1, $2, or $3 per hand, some casinos offer the Azure game-maker company’s “Dealers Angels Blackjack.” During this game, five players can sit in front of a cyber dealer, who, over the years, has stripped down from the standard-issue black-and-white crisp shirt-and-pants uniform to a slinky cocktail dress. I saw both white- and dark-skinned virtual dealers in various casinos.

Of course, many businesses have long used Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help customers with low-level requests. For example, when I called my bank to report this Vegas trip, a friendly and helpful disembodied woman’s voice talked me through my vacation dates and locations, thus securing my debit and credit cards from fraudulent activity (but not helping avoid bad judgment regarding the unfortunate spangled jumpsuit, dang it).

You, the customer, save time (and attitude from surly customer service agents). Businesses save money, and they polish up their image, too. In the case of the robot dogs, high-end resorts want to push the idea their property is luxe.

As Michael McCall, a hospitality professor at Michigan State University, said, “What is interesting is that the consumer connection ... is to tie this robotic experience to a luxury experience, not simply one of functionality.” Additionally, he told Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Todd Prince, “It doesn’t accomplish anything that can’t be accomplished in other ways, but it seeks to present it as classy.”

No doubt there are media applications for AI (and robotics).

For example, in 2016, The Washington Post began using its homegrown AI technology, Heliograf, to create some 300 short reports on the Rio Olympic games. Heliograf was later used to “cover” election day congressional and gubernatorial races, and D.C.-area high school football games. Heliograf cranked out 850+ “stories” in 2017.

How did it go? You be the judge after reading this news story section from reporter Becca Stanek in The Week:

“Here’s a snippet of a story that The Washington Post published in November 2016, on a close game between two local high school football teams: Keeney seemed to be at a loss until the game’s final minutes. Coming off four consecutive 300-plus-yard performances, Keeney completed just 10 of 20 pass attempts for 125 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown Friday. [The Washington Post]

And here’s a sample from another high school football game write-up that the Post published less than a year later, in September 2017: The game began with a scoreless first quarter. In the second quarter, The Patriots’ Paul Dalzell was the first to put points on the board with a two-yard touchdown reception off a pass from quarterback William Porter. [The Washington Post]

The first section is written by Nick Eilerson, a high school sports reporter for The Washington Post. The second one is the work of Heliograf, the Post’s artificial intelligence system. You know, a robot.”

Indeed, the largest publishers and media houses are actively using AI. Reported by Max Willens for Digiday, like The Washington Post, the Associated Press has used AI to create content “about everything from public companies’ earnings reports to the outcomes of minor league baseball games.” Willens noted third-party vendors such as Salesforce, Boomtrain, and Keywee “help power programmatic advertising, CRM, and audience targeting.” And The New York Times has used AI to look for patterns in campaign finance data, Willens reported.

Google, Apple, Facebook, Intel, and Twitter have also invested billions in AI start-ups over the years, quietly and not-so-quietly learning audience and individual behaviour.

No doubt the deployment of bots can create a dangerously slippery slope. Look no further than the use of Russian bots on social media platforms used to misinform and influence the 2016 U.S. elections.

But it does seem useful and relatively harmless to employ AI to help humanoids spot trends that need live reporters to dig deeper or to point human marketers toward non-subscribers with behaviours mirroring those of current subscribers. It would also seem robotics could be deployed in our packaging center, as Amazon currently does in its vast warehouses. We could surely save our customers time and angst with super smart AI telephone service that is timely, intuitive, and polite.

But it will certainly tax our best judgment as we seek to balance speed and efficiency with human judgment — as tempting as an intelligent robot helper telling me, “Girl. Put. It. Back,” would have been at the ANGL store in Vegas.

About Kathleen Coleman

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