Alibaba debuts its first service robot

Chinese tech firm is eyeing a slice of the global robotics market, starting with a service robot that delivers items to hotel guests

Chinese technology giant Alibaba will next month launch its first service robots for the hospitality industry, in a bid to grab a slice of the global robotics market.

Developed by the Alibaba Artificial Intelligence (AI) Labs, the aluminum robot is fitted with multiple sensors that collect data about its environment, as well as an autonomous navigation system to identify obstacles in its way.

The robot also uses onboard communication systems to control elevators and facilitate movement within a hotel, as well as facial-recognition technology to identify guests.

It can be controlled by voice, touch and hand gestures, and its responses are driven by AliGenie, the same software that powers Alibaba’s Tmall Genie smart speaker.

Chen Lijuan, general manager of Alibaba AI Labs, said hotels have until now depended entirely on human labour, but the service robot, which can deliver meals and take laundry to guests, demonstrates what guests can expect at hotels in the future.

“We are excited by this tremendous development that is helping us bridge the gap between guest needs and the response time they expect,” she said, adding that the robot will solve pain points in the hotel sector, such as enhancing service efficiency.

“The robot will be the ultimate assistant for hotel guests who want everything quickly and conveniently at their fingertips.”

Some hotels in Asia are already experimenting with service robots to serve guests. Singapore’s M Social Hotel and Park Avenue Rochester Hotel, for example, have been using US-made robots that can navigate elevators and deliver bottled water and towels to guests, freeing hotel staff to focus more on special requests.

At Alibaba’s annual technology conference in Hangzhou, Chen said the firm would assess robotic applications in other areas, including hospitals, restaurants and office services, after a trial at a hotel.

“At hospitals, for example, nurses walk around a lot to tend to patients,” she said. “The robot can be used to alleviate some of their tasks.”

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According to the International Federation of Robotics, the global market for service robots is expected to grow by between 20% and 25% from 2018 to 2020. Sales of these robots to organisations in the professional services segment alone are expected to reach about $27m.

Besides its service robot, Alibaba AI Labs has also announced Tmall Genie Auto, a version of its digital assistant that will be used by car makers such as Volvo, BMW and Daimler for cars sold in China.

Tmall Genie is one of the most popular smart speakers in China, with more than five million units sold since its launch in 2017.

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