Will we accept robots on holiday?

Imagine the following scenario. You walk into a hotel after a long flight and the person behind the hotel desk isn’t a person at all but a robot. The scenario sounds futuristic but there are already robot receptionists in some hotels.

How would you feel?

It wouldn’t feel very ‘human’, of course, but then it can feel rather less than human when you’re faced with a real but incompetent human receptionist. Robots make less procedural mistakes than humans and they don’t get tired.

I was commissioned by the travel company Travelzoo to run a multi-country study investigating the extent to which people across the world are ready to accept robots in the travel industry.

Travelzoo were delighted with the amount of PR that the research generated, from Lonely Planet to CNN to The Mirror and beyond. It exceeded the expectations of their award winning PR team.

The countries covered were the UK, Germany, France, Spain, US, Canada, Japan, China and Brazil. I used Nordstadt for the fieldwork. Over 6,000 respondents around the world answered our questionnaire in local languages. All had recently booked travel online.

They were asked the very same scenario this article opened with; you walk into a hotel and a robot is the receptionist.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the majority of respondents (83%) prefer the idea of human hotel receptionists to robots.

However, they were then asked which they would prefer if the robot receptionist was a little more competent than the human. At this point 59% opted for the machine, 41% stuck with the human.

You might argue that it is natural for people to opt for competent service or you might be surprised at our willingness to welcome the machines. Now let’s move on from receptionists to waiters.

In a scenario in which a human waiter and a robot waiter are equally competent, 81% of us would prefer the human, a similar figure to the receptionist scenario.

If the human waiter were less competent than the robot waiter, however, the majority of us (56%) would still want the human to wait our table. People didn’t naturally opt for competence in this scenario.

The Europeans, especially the French, were least likely to want to replace less competent waiters with efficient robots.

It seems that people can accept the idea of robot receptionists more than they can accept robot waiters.

You might think the issue is mobility. It is easier to imagine a machine working behind a desk than negotiating the tables at a pavement café. However, people would accept the use of robots as hotel porters more readily than they would accept robot receptionists. Porters negotiate miles of crowded corridors and take several lift journeys every day.

Similarly, the idea of robots bringing room service was more acceptable than robots working on the reception desk. Only the French would prefer a less competent human bringing room service to a competent robot.

Women were similar to men in the extent to which they would welcome robot porters and room service providers (i.e. roles that involve coming to the hotel room door), which suggests there is no personal security issue at play here. We are simply more open to some travel jobs being taken by robots than others.

People were especially reluctant to replace airline cabin crew and the customer facing crew on cruise ships with robots. In all countries the majority thought humans could do these jobs better than robots. Notably these are jobs that, in emergencies, extend to directing people to life rafts and emergency exits.

After these two jobs it is the humble bar tender we’d prefer to be human. Perhaps bartenders are lifesavers in a different sense. Only the Chinese were happy to see the bartender turn robot.

The majority of people are also comfortable with the idea of robots being used in nurseries in holiday location, assisting human childcare workers. Surprisingly parents of young children were keener on the idea than average. Perhaps their desire to see their darlings entertained is greater than any fear of robot nursery assistants.

In general, the survey uncovered more comfort with the idea of robots replacing roles in the travel industry than expected. Overall, 61% said they would be comfortable with the use of robots in some roles. Overall, perceived advantages of robots in travel industry jobs outweighed concerns.

The biggest concern was that they take away jobs. In unemployment-hit Spain this concern outweighed all the perceived advantages of robots in travel.

The French and Germans worried about robots being too impersonal. The biggest fear of the British is that robots wouldn’t understand slang or irony. In these three countries the main concern was as prevalent as the greatest perceived attraction (efficiency).

In all nations there was a mixture of fear and optimism about the coming of the robots to the travel industry. Optimism outweighed fear on balance.

It is fortunate that we err to optimism as 77% of us expect robots to be a big part of our life soon. The Brits were the most sceptical but even 69% of them expected robots to be a big part of life soon. The robots are coming and, it seems, they’ll be pretty well accepted on our holidays, even if we can see them in some roles more than in others.

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