Pepper is just under four feet tall, but he has no trouble interacting with people who tower over him. He proved as much in fall 2020 when he made his debut at New Mexico State University’s student-run 100 West Café, working as a host – although he raised a few eyebrows.

That’s because Pepper is the world’s first humanoid robot programmed to recognize human emotion and engage with people through conversation and a touch screen. He was part of an exploratory study at NMSU to evaluate robot interactions 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 interfaced with people and if consumers were willing to accept service from a robot.”

As a host, Pepper checked in customers for the dining room and handled take-out orders. At the touch of a button, he would also dance and provide general information about 100 West Café and its menu. While some customers enjoyed their interactions with Pepper, he was a hard sell for others.

“There was a general lack of trust. I don’t know if that’s because people have seen too many robots go wild in science fiction movies, but we were surprised people refused to interact with him,” said Stringam, who hopes to further the research over time. 

For Stringam, the Pepper project represents one piece in a greater interest area centered on technology in the hospitality industry. She’s part of a group of researchers from across the nation that studies technology’s impact on the hospitality industry workforce in a project headed by Carnegie Mellon University. 

As the Digital Faculty Fellow for the NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, Stringam played a critical role in supporting faculty in the transition to online learning spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. She’s also written a chapter on hotel and guestroom technology for an upcoming textbook, “Hospitality and Tourism Information Technology.”

“In the industry, we are moving technology forward with leaps and bounds for several reasons,” she said.

For one, technology is less expensive and more reliable, and therefore more desirable, Stringam said. The pandemic also pushed hospitality businesses to adopt new technology at warp speed to meet consumer demands for contactless experiences, she adds. She believes workers should embrace – not fear – technology in the workplace as a tool to make their jobs easier.

“Technology can be fun, and it can help do our jobs better,” she said. “I don’t think the goal at the end of the day is to replace the worker. It’s simply freeing up employees to do better work.” 

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

“There are some things machines are better at doing than humans, but there are many things humans are better at doing than machines,” she said. “Things like walking up a set of stairs, opening a door or detecting sarcasm in someone’s voice are things that most adults can easily do, but that robots have endless struggles with.”

Fraune added that workplace teams function best when teammates play to their strengths and coordinate with each other.

“That’s what we’re looking for in human-machine teaming,” she said. “If a robot can take over the tedious, dull, repetitive, or heavy-lifting tasks that are often boring or even dangerous to people, this should free up those people to do the more interesting, engaging and safe tasks.” 

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

Stringam said she strives to address technology’s ever-changing role in the hospitality workforce in her classes at NMSU. For example, she has her undergraduate students come up with designs for a hospitality robot, much like Pepper, while her graduate students write technology proposals focusing on workforce impact.

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

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