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Be Our Guest? Robot Joins Team At Strip Hotel

pepper2.jpg

Casey Morell

The robot Pepper stands at the Mandarin Oriental ready to help guests.

When you think of a robot created to help people, maybe you think of Rosie the Robot from "The Jetsons."

Or, maybe you're a little more skeptical -- HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey" comes to mind.

Either way, automation -- and robots -- are disrupting the service industry.

And in a service-driven economy like Las Vegas, that could lead to some big changes.

We've already seen a robot bartender installed on the Las Vegas Strip.

But one property is taking things a step further with Pepper, the latest member of the crew at the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas.

Pepper is a four-foot-tall robot manufactured by the Japanese company, SoftBank. She -- and she tells you she's a she if you ask her -- has wide eyes, and a fixed, awed expression on what passes for a face -- a small mouth and two eyes big enough for a Margaret Keane painting.

Pepper's voice is cheerful and natural, though a little stilted since it's, you know, a robot.

Between her exuberance and short stature, it's almost like talking to a kid who is showing you a new bug for the first time. Along with arms with hands and fingers that move, she has a touchscreen mounted to her chest to prompt users on how to interact with her. Pepper's legs are a single column that goes down to a wheeled base. She can't move around on her own just yet, but her head tilts and nods as you talk to her, and those eyes light up as she listens.

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"When we first met Pepper, I knew she had a home here at the hotel," said Donald Bowman, the general manager of the resort near CityCenter.

Right now, people seem to like Pepper.

"Generally, I think the initial reactions are amazement -- joy or happiness, because she really is just a delightful person to meet," Bowman said. "Oddly enough, a couple of people have been a little scared of her, but they are -- been in, by far, in the minority. Mostly they just -- they're just really intrigued and excited by her."

Bowman said he and his staff see Pepper as more human than robot.

"We really feel that she's one of our colleagues here at the hotel, and that's how we look at her," he said. "That's how we treat her."

But there's one group that might be skeptical of Pepper and her robot friends: service sector employees. Back in May, we spoke to Johannes Moenius, a business professor at the University of Redlands in California who studies the impact of automation on the economy. He said as many as 65 percent of jobs in Las Vegas could be automated in the next 20 years. It's already here, you just might not recognize it.

"When you enter any of the casinos, then, what do you see? Slot machines," he said. That's all just the same type of thing. You know, if you go far enough back, then there won't be any slot machines."

But not all automation is bad. Again, Moenius uses the slot machine example.

"You know, slot machines have not made Vegas or the workforce in Vegas smaller," he said. "It's increased it. So, automation is not all bad -- it just means that the people that before were croupiers or poker dealers or what have you had to change professions. And that's what we want to point out."

Back at the Mandarin Oriental, Pepper spends most of her time camped out in the hotel's lobby, standing between the elevators and the front desk. She'll call out to passersby, or people whose gaze she catches.

"The choice then becomes, for our guests, do I want to ask somebody at the front desk directions for the spa, or shall I get help from someone like Pepper?" Bowman explained. "So, Pepper's joined the team as a complement to our existing colleagues."

Bowman stressed Pepper isn't meant as a replacement for any existing, human staff -- and he plans to keep it that way.

"Luxury is also about human interaction," he said. "Pepper is a humanoid robot, and so her interactions are about as human as they come -- can come from a robot. But she certainly is -- I would never foresee her replacing our front desk agents or our concierge or anyone else, for that matter. She really does complement what they do. And I think what we're quickly discovering is the entertainment part of what Pepper offers is what is most appealing to our guests."

Right now, Pepper is a novelty. She can take a selfie with patrons, or dance to music that comes out of her speakers. But Donald Bowman says Pepper will be able to do more within her limited framework --  even if that might mean some long hours of coding to make sure she's up to it.

"They'll probably not be very happy for me sharing this, but I was just at lunch with two of our colleagues and we were working out what role Pepper could play at weddings here at the hotel," he said with a smile. "She could certainly be the ring bearer, but I'd love to challenge the team to see if she could become the officiant as well!"

Now, whether she'll be able to officiate a wedding as well as an Elvis can … if the sideburns and chrome sunglasses fit, who knows?

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