Playa Vista entrepreneur Raj Singh is changing the hotel industry with Artificial Intelligence
by Andy Vasoyan
As Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant continue their pleasant-voiced infiltration of homes, appliances and cell phones, another affable Artificial Intelligence — Ivy — has been quietly staking her claim.
While Siri inhabits an iPhone, Alexa her Echo, and Google Assistant hangs out in the office and home, Ivy is a more itinerant sort: She’s the world’s largest travel chatbot, working in hotels across the country.
A product of Santa Monica-based startup Go Moment, Ivy represents groups ranging from stalwart Sheraton and Hilton hotels to glitzy Vegas playgrounds like Caesar’s Palace and the Hard Rock Hotel. She’s often the first interaction with a hotel that many of the guests will have, so Ivy greets them by name, offers fresh towels, some drinks by the pool, and many things besides. Satisfied guests have asked Ivy on dates, offered cash tips, even proposed marriage. So how did Ivy become a digital concierge par excellence?
Enter Playa Vista resident Raj Singh, founder and CEO of Go Moment. Singh grew up riding horses in the Himalayas of Kashmir, until his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 12. They eventually expanded into hotel operations, while Singh himself would read science fiction and acquaint himself with the burgeoning internet, including chatbots.
After he graduated and worked in user experience and design for the likes of Sony, Virgin and musician Sheryl Crow, Singh realized that for the hospitality industry, “hotels cannot keep up with rising guest expectations simply by hiring more people. The profit margins are thinner than most people think, and if you want to adopt a messaging strategy, there’s still phone calls, there’s still emails. You need automation and AI for this.”
In 2014, Singh and Go Moment found their AI partner: IBM’s Watson, which had notoriously outwitted human contestants on “Jeopardy” three years earlier. The technological side meshed well, though “admittedly, the market wasn’t necessarily ready in 2014,” Singh says. “But every year that’s passed by, we’ve seen the market moving closer to where we are.”
At 4 years old, Ivy’s a relative AI elder statesman — she’s had time to hone her craft. The AI is now working with what Singh believes to be the world’s largest proprietary guest behavior database, all in service of creating that “warm and friendly personality that is simple and easy to approach and understand, and will take care of you wherever you go.”
That personality differs slightly from stay to stay (Caesar’s Palace is a bit more “buttoned-up, than, say than the Hard Rock Hotel,” according to Singh), but the end goal remains something recognizable from stay to stay.
The data that keeps Ivy on top is also, for a security-minded CEO like Singh, an area of awareness.
“All the data we have on the guest is anonymized and through opt-ins, where the guest actually has to say ‘Yes, you have my permission,’” says Singh. “Our maxim internally is that if we wouldn’t want it done to our data, we won’t do it to anyone else’s.”
All that compiled data and skill that Ivy has can be freeing for a hotel’s workers too.
“How many times can you answer a text message asking what’s the Wi-Fi, what time is checkout, without feeling like a robot?” Singh observes. “We’re seeing that as Ivy takes these mundane, repetitive tasks away from human employees, they feel better about their jobs. … Less robotic.”
In the realm of AI in general, Singh raises the specter of the “Terminator” franchise, where sentient robots attempt to wipe out mankind: “I’ve had people say ‘They’re going to Skynet us! Robots are going to take all of our jobs!’ My response to that is there was a time when all of us had horses to travel and get around. Now we have cars, but horses are still around, and I think that’s probably for the best. It’s just a different kind of function.”
Looking forward, Singh offers some very human milestones for Ivy; she and Amazon’s Alexa are already “friends,” meaning guests could start to say things like “Hey Alexa, tell Ivy to get me more towels.” As Ivy looks to make new friends, she’s also trying to learn new languages: a translation function where a guest could message Ivy in their native language, and have her as a go-between for the guest and hotel staff.
Ivy’s continued quest for humanity, though interesting, is not Singh’s number one priority.
“AI is a tool, and we’re trying to apply it judiciously where it can create a positive experience for people. We’re not going to be AI for AI’s sake,” Singh says.
Follow @RajSinghLA on Twitter.