By John Burroughes

Managing Director, Uniglobe Preferred Travel

We all know the proverbial saying about buses coming along at once, and so it was last week that prolific forces managed to converged numerous important travel related events in the same week, in different parts of the world. The net result of this was that I found myself talking to a lost business traveller (Brian) in Dubai airport while my son Andrew, found himself at the Amadeus Innovation Centre in Nice talking to a robot.

Let me explain. I was in Dubai to meet with owners of travel businesses from many different countries to discuss the future of travel distribution, which is a particularly hot topic in our industry at present, especially with the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Virtual Personal Assistant (VPA).

Now we are all used to Apple’s Siri and Amazon Echo, we in the travel industry are preparing to welcome Amadeus’s Pepper and even Hitachi’s EMIEW3 robot, (note the French give a fluffy name, the Japanese a serial number). It wasn’t that long ago that we were explaining to business travellers what this newfangled item called an e-ticket was!

So first to Japan where at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, Hitachi are trialling a project with their EMIEW3 robot, which is performing a range of functions such as giving directions, answering travel related questions and actually taking travellers to the locations they are seeking within the airport. Robots are also being trialled in Japanese hotels.

Here I would like you to picture the massive queues one used to have to join at an airport to check-in, nowadays you can go to a terminal, tap your details in and move swiftly on. Instead of waiting behind the people that are trying to check-in on the wrong day, or arguing about an upgrade, how about a robot to assist you at check-in or at checkout? Whilst on the subject of upgrades, with a robot, surely all we would need is an upgrade code, as opposed to being eyed up and down by the hotel clerk to see if we appeared worthy of one.

In addition to the airport, a hotel is trialling a robot that stores and retrieves your luggage, and robots that deliver your suitcases to your room - no more embarrassing moments where the bellhop hovers in the doorway whilst you fumble for some token of your gratitude. Pepper on the other hand is being groomed (well, programmed) to work by rechargeable battery and as a human, a.k.a. a travel consultant. The idea is you visit a travel agency, you see that the travel consultants are busy and all of a sudden you hear a ‘friendly voice from a cute little robot’ (Amadeus’s words not mine). It greets you saying: “hello, let me show you some pictures,” if you see a picture you like just smile, you join in and away you go - your profile is already being built from a series of pictures and questions. Integrated within the software is complexed artificial intelligent algorithms that are trawling through billions of news articles embedded within the robot, sorry Pepper.

Pepper is simultaneously linking your profile which it created through your dialogue with external destination profiles. After displaying a shortlist of suggested destinations, Pepper transfers all of this information to the travel consultant’s desktop, (travel consultant is a human, at the moment) where they refine your destination choice and aim to add value to make your trip truly unique.

Before you think that all of this is a bit far-fetched, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Amadeus, Samsung and Apple all have major AI test projects currently running and the global stakes have never been higher, as we have just seen with the withdrawal of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7, which is expected to cost the company £4.4bn this year alone.

Someone who is particularly interesting is a man called Dag Kittlaus. He was behind the development of Apple’s Siri, the digital assistant bought by Apple in 2010. He left Apple in 2012 and began working on a new more advanced AI project called Viv, which was in turn purchased by Samsung last week. The stated aim of Viv is to “breathe life into inanimate objects.”

The fine line between technical genius and falling off the wafer thin electronic tightrope, has never been more publicly displayed as in the last few weeks with the above loss for Samsung. Set this against the launch of Apple’s iPhone 7, which contains something they are calling ‘image signal processor’ (ISP) which is capable of performing as many as 100 billion operations in just 25 milliseconds, the AI revolution is not just around the corner, it’s already looking and learning from us!

So back to Brian, the lost business traveller I encountered in Dubai. Brian is a marine engineer and travels to all parts of the globe at very short notice to fix ships and machines. His skill set is much sought after and doesn’t come cheap, yet the reason he was wandering around Dubai airport was the travel company he was using had not informed him which hotel they had booked him into, they hadn’t even sent him an email itinerary, yet alone one that he could access online. Now dear Brian being a considerate soul, was waiting for a suitable time difference between him and the UK before waking up said agent.

If ever there was a cost to a company or person where even a sliver of the above technology could have added to a better personal experience, here is an example.

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