NMSU professors study the role of technology in the hotel workforce

LAS CRUCES – Pepper is just under three feet tall, but he has no problem interacting with people above him. He proved it in the fall of 2020 when he debuted at the 100 West Café student-run New Mexico State University, as a host – 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. It was part of an exploratory study at NMSU to assess the interactions of robots with humans, a collaboration between Betsy Stringam of the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management and Marlena Fraune of the Department of Psychology. Their research team also included two graduate students, Rebecca Skulsky and Harrison Preusse.

“Almost since ‘The Jetsons’ we’ve been able to do things automatically or automated. In the hospitality industry, customers have to accept it as a level of service, ”Stringam said. “With this study, we wanted to see how Pepper interfaces with people and whether consumers are willing to accept the service of a robot.”

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As a host, Pepper would check in customers for the dining room and take care of take out orders. At the push of a button he also danced and gave general information about the 100 West Café and its menu. While some customers enjoyed their interactions with Pepper, it was hard to sell for others.

“There was a general lack of confidence. I don’t know if it’s because people have seen too many robots going wild in sci-fi movies, but we were surprised people refused to interact with it, ”said Stringam, who hopes to dig deeper into it. research over time.

For Stringam, the Pepper project represents a piece in a larger area of ​​interest focused on technology in the hospitality industry. She is part of a group of researchers from across the country studying the impact of technology on the hospitality industry workforce as part of a project led by Carnegie Mellon University.

As a member of the digital faculty of the NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, Stringam has played a pivotal role in supporting faculty in the transition to e-learning spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. She has also written a chapter on hotel and guesthouse technology for an upcoming manual, “Hospitality and Tourism Information Technology”.

“In the industry, we are advancing technology in leaps and bounds for several reasons,” she said.

On the one hand, the technology is cheaper and more reliable, and therefore more desirable, Stringam said. The pandemic has also prompted hospitality companies to embrace new high-speed technologies to meet consumer demands for contactless experiences, she adds. She believes workers should embrace – not fear – workplace technology as a tool to make their jobs easier.

“Technology can be fun and it can help us do our jobs better,” she said. “I don’t think the ultimate goal is to replace the worker. It’s just about freeing up employees to do a better job.

Marlena Fraune, a cognitive scientist who studies human-robot interaction at New Mexico State University, was the principal investigator of a project that used Pepper the robot to assess interactions between robots and humans.

Fraune, a cognitive scientist who studies human-robot interaction, agrees with Stringam.

“There are things that machines do better than humans, but there are a lot of things that humans do better than machines,” she said. “Things like going upstairs, opening a door, or sensing sarcasm in someone’s voice are things that most adults can easily do, but robots have endless difficulty with. “

Fraune added that teams in the workplace perform best when teammates leverage their strengths and coordinate with each other.

Pepper the Robot was part of a study at New Mexico State University to assess the robot's interactions with humans.  Last fall, Pepper hosted guests at NMSU's student-run restaurant, 100 West Café.  The study was a collaboration between the School of Hospitality, Restaurant and Tourism Management and the Department of Psychology.

“This is what we are looking for in the man-machine team,” she said. “If a robot can take on the tedious, boring, repetitive, or heavy tasks that are often boring or even dangerous for people, it should free those people up to do the most interesting, engaging and safe tasks.”

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Fraune’s laboratory has partnered with NASA, the Toyota Research Institute, the US Air Force and researchers from universities in Germany, Portugal and Japan to find solutions to integrate human teams -machine and improve people’s lives.

Stringam said she strives to address the ever-changing role of technology in the hotel workforce in her classes at NMSU. For example, she asks her undergraduates to design a hospitality robot, much like Pepper, while her graduate students write technology proposals focused on workforce impact.

“HRTM is fortunate to have Dr Stringam at the forefront of this interdisciplinary research and education on hospitality technology, particularly its role on the workforce,” said Jean Hertzman, director of HRTM. “It is essential that we incorporate it into all of our HRTM courses to prepare our students to lead the future of the hospitality and tourism industries. “

“Eye on Research” is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s article was written by Carlos Andres López of Marketing and Communications. He can be reached at 575-646-1955 or by email at [email protected].

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