S. A. Applin, Ph.D. is an anthropologist whose research explores the domains of human agency, algorithms, AI, and automation in the context of social systems and sociability. You can find more @anthropunk.
This week Amazon introduced “Alexa for Hospitality.” Amazon and its hotel partners will outfit hotel rooms with Amazon Alexa-enabled Echo, Echo Plus, and Echo Dot devices, which customers can use during their stays. Marriott has signed up as a launch partner, and soon, hotel customers will be able to connect to their own Amazon account “allowing them to call personal contacts, play their favorite music, and listen to Audible audiobooks.”
In some ways, this is great news. Having voice access in a room rather than having to move to a telephone can be a great aid to people who are impaired or injured. It’s great news for people who don’t like to touch surfaces in hotel rooms, too. But mostly, it is great news for people already plugged into the Amazon ecosystem. These people know how to use the devices, they have an Amazon account, and eventually they will finally get a seamless, ubiquitous computing experience. People will be able to transfer their behaviors and preferences from home to their hotel room—which will soon be just an extension of our homes. People will be able to use Alexa to order Room Service, or find out about local weather or anything else that they might need from a hotel front desk and access their contacts and libraries.
Marriott has been taking the technical plunge for years. In 2016, Marriott introduced the Savioke Relay robot to provide some delivery services (sundries, drinks, and snacks) to customers. The Relay rolls to just outside the room and customers open their door, interact with the robot, and close it, very much in the same way they might interact with member of hotel staff. With the Relay, human workers are still required in the equation, they load up and empty the robots, keep them charged, and monitor the process. For the most part, customers don’t seem to mind the Relay robots, as they take selfies with them and write about the experience. Less was written on how hotel staff felt about the Relay robots, in particular, if it was upsetting to potentially lose tips for room deliveries or their chance to add a personal touch to a customer’s hotel experience overall.
Amazon has now found a way directly into the hotel room—a rare coup. The only other businesses that have had the ability to track customers in their hotel rooms have been those providing the television/cable, Internet connection, and the minibar. By joining these service providers, Amazon (and hotels) now have the option to collect new forms of data from people.
For Amazon, this expands its scope from collecting shopping, reading, and viewing habits to include travel information and hotel room requests. Previously, hotels might have had access to pieces of this data from other vendors and their own phone logs, but not near complete narratives of what happens when a customer occupies a room. With access to Alexa data, depending upon usage, hotels can combine collected data with cable, minibar and other data, resulting in more deep profiling of their customers. Consumers can now have hotel credit cards, and as such hotels can see purchases and consumer behavior in that way, but what they don’t have is the big overview of data patterns for each individual, and that is what Amazon continues to collect—who we are wholly. What we read and watch, what we buy, where we stay, what we do while we stay, how we manage our homes, and with Whole Foods, what we eat.
To some extent, surveillance in hotels has been increasing as new technology has become available. However, when making sense of collected data, machine learning applied to big data collection can lead to a range of interpretation mistakes. Putting Echo in hotel rooms can also lead to trust, security, and privacy violations if the room occupants are mistakenly not logged out when they leave, and their data is not removed or managed in some way such that it doesn’t mingle with newer data profiles from future room occupants. At best, interpretation errors could impact what types of experiences, advertising, or special treatment (or not) customers may be offered by a hotel, but at worst, mingled data leak errors and surveillance could wreak all sorts of havoc.
Can people relax and get away from it all if Alexa is right there with them?
Room Service and housekeeping are hotel services that still require people to function. With the Relay and Alexa in use in hotels, whether separately or perhaps in tandem, the data that hotel staff members have access to with these services is changing, as more hotel workers are removed from serving customer requests directly. Amazon has found yet another way to help hotels with managing an international and multilingual workforce. For example, In an English speaking country, a command to the room Alexa will be interpreted by the software and routed to the right department in a request framework that is part of a systematic process, which is received by a hotel worker to process. Even if the hotel worker does not speak English as a first language, the processes can be learned and as a result, the requests can be filled. However, if a customer has special needs or requests outside of the hotel’s and Amazon’s pre-determined pathways, or speaks another language, they may still need to call a hotel employee and speak with a human, provided one is available—or risk process, cultural, and language misinterpretations, resulting in unexpected outcomes.
For business customers, having a sense of “home away from home” via Amazon, might make all the difference in familiarity and comfort for a busy or lonely business traveller. For leisure customers, depending upon brand, Alexa in the room could be an unwelcome device. If they bring everything, including their Amazon data profile with them on vacation, they may not feel that sense of escape that is needed for rejuvenation. Can people relax and get away from it all if Alexa is right there with them?
This points to an underlying concern with ourselves as separate from the network. To maintain our sense of humanity, we must resist becoming part of the machine. While we are being tracked, coded, profiled, and targeted, we are still not fully integrated into a hybrid data system. When we begin to rely upon Amazon, as we travel, away from our homes, away from the convenience of our own local Smart Environment, it becomes something else. Amazon may be offering convenience, but this will come with some price, either our privacy, our habits and patterns being scraped—or, our pleasure centers so stimulated, that we don’t want to go anywhere Amazon is not.