Meet 'The Robot Whisperer' — and Her Fleet of Bot Babies

Meet 'The Robot Whisperer' — and Her Fleet of Bot Babies

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu



Because, as we show here, maybe robots have feelings too.

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

OZY and Giant Spoon are excited to partner on special live coverage from CES 2017 — where the most forward-looking technology and media come together. Rather than cover just the latest gadgets, though, we’re taking you deeper with key takeaways, little-known rising stars, unconventional trends and, yes, the coolest sh*t from the convention. Tune in to our special Facebook Live tonight at 8pm EST / 5pm PST for fresh perspectives on the future of data and robotics. 

Inside a swanky Las Vegas hotel, Tessa Lau clutches her little one like a lioness smothering her cub. She pats him on the head and he coos in response. Apparently, though, his affection is pre-programmed. Robots may be unfeeling servants, but they don’t have to be cold and unblinking, says Lau. Which is why she’s got her little one here and a fleet of other “unruly robot children” under her wing.

Casual and calm during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Lau doesn’t seem the type to play God. But the 43-year-old is the masterful creator behind a new generation of cheerful, brown-nosing bots geared to take over the hospitality industry — complete with facial and gleeful expressions (bleep!) when a delivery is completed or they enter an elevator with a hotel guest. At Savioke, a robotics startup based in San Jose, Lau’s the chief robot czar (co-founder and chief technology officer), where she’s already deployed dozens of these steely, armless concierges in some 50 hotels across America, including inside nationwide chains like Marriott, Hilton and Starwood. More than 75,000 deliveries have been made, ranging from fresh towel runs to pipin’ hot dinner drop-offs for unsuspecting hotel vacationers. Lau’s hope is that in the next few years, you’ll spot her robo-babies in restaurants, office buildings, hospitals, retirement homes and hospice centers and aboard cruise ships all around the country. “She’s a pioneer and one-of-a-kind,” says Joanne Pransky, a robotics consultant. “She brings to the table not only her brilliance, but her sensitivity to make her a robot whisperer.”


Of course, the space-age robo-butler has long been a favorite of science fiction, from the Jetson’s metallic maid Rosie to Pixar’s WALL-E, the cuddly, trash-compacting cleaner. Indeed, the word “robot” stems from “robota,” meaning drudgery or hard labor in many Eastern European languages. And although the science behind Lau’s movement still has a way to go, today’s service robots would likely blow the minds of early robot visionaries like Isaac Asimov. Look no further than the robot-run Henn-na Hotel in Japan, where a metal-clad velociraptor checks you into your room and a robotic arm gently stores your luggage. Inside a Marriott in Belgium a humanoid guards the buffet, while some Royal Caribbean cruises boast robo-bartenders that mix margaritas. In all, the service robotics market is poised to reach $24 billion by 2022, up from just $10 billion last year, according to global research firm MarketsandMarkets. 

At Savioke, colleagues point to Lau’s ability to combine the raw power of artificial intelligence with the responsiveness needed for human connections. She deftly draws from her vast expertise in different disciplines, including machine learning and electrical engineering, to get a “bird’s-eye view” of complex machines that are designed with delicate human interactions in mind, rather than cold and calculating commands. “We want our robots to be functioning members of society,” she says. Translation? Your fresh set of pillows will come with a comical dose of whirrs and beeps. Roll aside, R2-D2.

Lau’s freshly-built bots gracefully maneuver through tight hotel corridors and seem almost capable of expressing emotion with human co-workers, who often treat these robots like one of their own.

With peppy, cropped hair and pearly white teeth, there’s a sunny demeanor about Lau — likely honed during her upbringing in sunny Southern California, near Pasadena. She’s got an affinity for order and function too, which is what initially drew her into the analytical world of computer science, first with a bachelor’s degree at Cornell University and then with a doctoral degree at the University of Washington. She moved onto IBM Research for over a decade, working her way up the ranks as she developed end-user programming systems and intelligent user interfaces. Her first brush with a robot came from a “400-pound monstrosity with hulking arms” at Willow Garage during her time as research scientist creating personal robots. Now at Savioke, Lau’s freshly-built bots gleam with cool, built-in blue lights, gracefully maneuvering through tight hotel corridors and seem almost capable of expressing emotion with human co-workers who often treat these robots like one of their own.

But not everything is all kumbaya. Automation can be a sore subject among blue-collar workers. Matt Beane, the chief human-robot interaction officer at Humatics, studies robotics in the workplace and notes “because these robots linger around in the same space as people who have service jobs, humans who work alongside those robots sometimes come to resent them.” As more service robots began to enter the real world, ideas of an evil robot takeover may be difficult to shake off. Even Lau’s robots have been roughed up in the past by hotel guests who sometimes beat, shove or kick them out of their way. That must hurt, surely. Here at CES, one of Lau’s robots zips to her feet. He blinks, innocently, at his mom. His eyes peer sweetly up toward her face, with total obedience and eerie perfection.