Ro­bot but­ler ‘alive and well’ at Westin ho­tel

The Buffalo News - - CON­TIN­UED FROM THE COVER -

Fran­cisco where he saw a guy walk­ing be­hind a mov­ing box, hold­ing a re­mote con­trol. “It was just walk­ing down the street.”

“What are you do­ing?” En­stice re­called ask­ing the man. “I was think­ing, ‘Ei­ther this guy has a bomb, or he’s do­ing some­thing re­ally cool.’ ”

“He said, ‘Oh, this is a ro­bot,’ ” En­stice said. “He said he was test­ing it out be­cause it was a part of a food de­liv­ery pro­gram. It did not look like a hu­man ro­bot.”

Though his ro­bot idea is just in the con­cep­tual stage, En­stice is hope­ful it can lead to the real thing. He said he is in talks with a sci­en­tist at Roswell Park Com­pre­hen­sive Can­cer Cen­ter to see what could be de­signed.

“We’re work­ing with a pro­fes­sor at Roswell to fig­ure out how you build this, and fund build­ing a pro­to­type of a ro­bot go­ing around the cam­pus to work on smok­ing ces­sa­tion,” En­stice said, de­clin­ing to elab­o­rate on who is in­volved or specifics nec­es­sary for it to hap­pen. “We could see if we could pro­gram it to get out in­for­ma­tion on smok­ing ces­sa­tion, talk to peo­ple, send a mes­sage. It could be one ro­bot, maybe more. We don’t know.”

En­stice said maybe a ro­bot could distribute anti-smok­ing lit­er­a­ture to peo­ple on the cam­pus, which in 2012 de­clared it­self a to­bacco-free zone.

The cam­pus spans a neigh­bor­hood stretch­ing from Good­ell Street to North Street, and from Michi­gan Av­enue to Main Street. The smoke-free pol­icy ap­plies to all Med­i­cal Cam­pus em­ploy­ees, vis­i­tors, pa­tients, ven­dors and con­trac­tors on cam­pus-owned prop­er­ties.

“We are a to­bacco-free cam­pus, but it is a chal­lenge to en­force” with so many dif­fer­ent em­ploy­ers, pa­tients and vis­tors, said Kari Root Bonaro, BNMC com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor.

Peo­ple still smoke on the Med­i­cal Cam­pus, with the Spirit of Life tree at the cor­ner of High and El­li­cott streets a fa­vorite spot. Maybe a ro­bot is the an­swer.

More and more, ro­bots are find­ing their way into real-life sit­u­a­tions to per­form a wide va­ri­ety of tasks.

Con­sider “Chip,” the ro­bot but­ler that has been de­liv­er­ing ameni­ties such as tow­els, tooth­paste, candy, cock­tails and news­pa­pers to ho­tel guests at the Westin Buf­falo on Delaware Av­enue since last March.

“He is alive and well, and serv­ing guests,” said Russ Papia, the ho­tel’s di­rec­tor of sales and mar­ket­ing. “It’s go­ing ex­tremely well. He’s hugely pop­u­lar with our chil­dren, and is an at­ten­tion-get­ter and a con­ver­sa­tion starter.”

Geared to the ser­vice in­dus­try, Papia said “Chip” is the only ro­bot but­ler in the Westin Ho­tels glob­ally and was the only one in a New York State ho­tel when he was launched last year. Docked at a charg­ing sta­tion by the ho­tel front desk, “Chip” has been pro­grammed with the lay­out of the ho­tel and knows where the guest rooms are.

“When we pro­gram him to de­liver an amenity, within a few min­utes, he is at the door,” Papia said. “He calls them from out­side the door, an­nounces his pres­ence, his top opens up and his amenity is wait­ing for you. And he goes on his merry way.”

When it comes to the Med­i­cal Cam­pus, some type of ro­bot with a spe­cial pur­pose may work de­pend­ing on its de­sign, said a lo­cal ex­pert on ro­bot­ics.

“Every­day ser­vice ro­bots, such as trash col­lect­ing and ma­te­rial mov­ing units, are a grow­ing in­dus­try, and there is an ex­cit­ing mo­men­tum right now in their com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment and de­ploy­ment in var­i­ous sec­tors all over the world,” said Souma Chowd­hury, a Uni­ver­sity at Buf­falo as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in me­chan­i­cal and aero­space en­gi­neer­ing, in an email to The News.

How­ever, he said the fo­cus in aca­demic re­search is “mostly on de­vel­op­ing en­abling new­gen­er­a­tion tech­nolo­gies” for ser­vice ro­bots that can learn new skills on the go, or per­ceive tasks with­out be­ing ex­clu­sively in­structed. Other ex­am­ples in­clude ro­bots that work as a team as well as soft ro­bots that can ef­fi­ciently nav­i­gate dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments.

But can a ro­bot help a per­son break such an ad­dic­tive habit?

“From one per­spec­tive, it would make peo­ple think about their be­hav­ior. If they’re try­ing to im­ple­ment this be­tween the hos­pi­tals, I think it would be a nov­elty,” said Baschnagel, who is also chair­man of the Psy­chol­ogy De­part­ment at Rochester In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

How­ever, Baschnagel said that for a ro­bot to help de­ter ad­dic­tive be­hav­ior, it has to be around a per­son all the time.

Baschnagel said the ro­bot could pro­vide coun­sel­ing in a med­i­cal set­ting: “If some­one is in a wait­ing room, the ro­bot could go around and talk to peo­ple, ask­ing, ‘Hey, do you smoke?’ It could take the place of the health provider ask­ing the ques­tions. It could help with screen­ing and then pro­vide that in­for­ma­tion to health care providers if it could iden­tify the pa­tient and add that to the records. That part cer­tainly is not far-fetched.”

“But dras­ti­cally help­ing peo­ple to quit, might be stretch­ing it a bit,” he said.

Baschnagel is work­ing with RIT stu­dents to de­sign a mo­bile app aimed at help­ing peo­ple quit smok­ing. The app will “learn” a per­son’s smok­ing be­hav­ior and then pre­dict when a per­son might be about to smoke, and use that pre­dic­tion to present some treat­ment “in the mo­ment,” he said. In the works for a year, Baschnagel said he hopes a pro­to­type will be ready by the end of sum­mer.

“We re­ally need ‘just in time’ treat­ment – some­thing that in­ter­venes just as you’re about to place a cig­a­rette in your mouth. A ro­bot would work maybe at a per­son’s home, say­ing, ‘It looks like you want to grab a pack of cig­a­rettes,’ ” he said. “It could in­ter­ject (by say­ing) ‘Here are some things you could do in­stead.’ ”

That doesn’t help smok­ers as they drive, sit in a bar or take a break at work, he said.

Still, En­stice is so pumped about the Med­i­cal Cam­pus ro­bot idea that he talked it up to lo­cal stu­dents in eighth grade and high school who were part of a pi­lot cod­ing camp last sum­mer on the cam­pus.

“Some were on a ro­bot­ics team. I jok­ingly said to them, ‘Can you build me that ro­bot to pick up cig­a­rette butts and squirt wa­ter at peo­ple if they yell at you?’ ” he re­called. “They told their ro­bot­ics coach, ‘We love this idea. Can we build it?’ ”

How, if and when it might be built, and funded, is un­known for now.

“I don’t know how long it takes to do some­thing like this. This is an idea I just threw out there,” En­stice said. “It’s about fig­ur­ing out what the busi­ness model is.”

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