Gliding silently through Alibaba Group Holding’s futuristic “FlyZoo” hotel, black disc-shaped robots about a metre in height deliver food and drop off fresh towels.
The robots are part of a suite of high-tech tools that Alibaba says drastically cuts the hotel’s cost of human labour and eliminates the need for guests to interact with other people.
Formally opened to the public last month, the 290-room FlyZoo is an incubator for technology Alibaba wants to sell to the hotel industry in the future and an opportunity to showcase its prowess in artificial intelligence.
It is also an experiment that tests consumer comfort levels with unmanned commerce in China – a country where intrusive data-sharing technology is readily tolerated and often met with enthusiasm.
“It’s all about the efficiency of the service and the consistency of service, because the robots are not disturbed by human moods. Sometimes, we say we are not in the mood, but the system and the robot will always be in the mood,” said Andy Wang, CEO of Alibaba Future Hotel Management, the unit that oversees the hotel project.
Inside the hotel, softly-lit white panelled walls bring to mind the interiors of Hollywood spaceships. Guests check in at podiums that scan their faces, as well as passports or other ID. Visitors with a Chinese national ID can scan their faces using their smartphones to check in ahead of time.
Elevators scan guests’ faces again to verify which floor they can access and hotel room doors are opened with another face scan.