SEEING BEYOND SPACESHIPS AND HUMANOIDS: HOW THE EMO-TECH REVOLUTION IS SHAPING OUR TRAVEL FUTURES

At a mere $20 billion, Elon Musk’s bank balance might not be as astronomical as that of Zuckerberg, Gates or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’… But his thinking sure is. With his spacecraft project that could see commercial travel to anywhere on the globe in less than hour, the former PayPal man believes he’ll begin his dream of colonising Mars in less than a decade. Currently building the world’s biggest battery in South Australia, few have made as dominant an impact on changing the world for the better; his ambitions are a sign of a time ahead when pie-in-the-sky futurism, no matter how outlandish, no longer seems unachievable.

In what amounted to little more than an insulting PR stunt, Saudi Arabia last week granted an honorary citizenship to Sophia – a robot that might now have more rights in the kingdom than a real-life female. “It’s obviously bullshit”, researcher in AI ethics at the University of Bath, Joanna Bryson, bluntly told tech publication The Verge. Beth Singler, a research associate at the University of Cambridge, had a different take: “we will have to have debates about robot/AI rights and citizenship because, at some point, they will ask for them.” We are living in fascinating times.

Hanson Robotics, Sophia
Hanson Robotics, Sophia

All of this has one common consideration: technology’s grip on our lives is tighter than ever before. We are living in an age where robots have rights and Elon Musk is acting out the fantasises of a Jules Verne protagonist; where technologies like AI, facial recognition and wireless charging are becoming the new norm; and where blockchain has made its move from the dark web to the mainstream. Conversely, the age of distraction is causing us to enter a self-imposed digital detox, crave authenticity and human interaction, and experience tangible life outside the cloud… So where does this leave technology in high-end and experiential travel?

To understand the impact that these space-age headline-grabbing technologies can have on our travel experiences, we need to look at what is going on behind Sophia’s clever Disneyland animatronics. Its eccentric creator’s assertion that the bot is “basically alive” might appeal to sci-fi fanatics, but it’s way off the mark. More importantly, it’s essential that we disassociate ‘robots’ from the perceived notions that have been built by decades of popular culture.

In the Internet of Things (smart TVs, white goods, cars, etc.) and everyday voice control systems like Siri and Alexa, Sophia lives among us. The tech giants are investing billions into the sort of machine learning that could see a robot requesting its own citizenship in years to come – but the reality may be more Scarlett Johansson in Her than Sean Young in Blade Runner. It is AI’s more realistic capabilities, though, that the travel industry can benefit from adopting, and it could arrive hand-in-hand with one of the tech world’s other buzzwords: blockchain.

Blockchain

Originally devised by whoever lies behind the secretive pseudonym, Satoshi Nakamoto, for their ‘cryptocurrency’ bitcoin – a protest against the central banking system – blockchains are insanely secure, decentralised databases. Overcoming the ‘double spending’ issue (prior to bitcoin, electronic monies could essentially be duplicated and spent over again) by creating blocks of data that would be timestamped when created and unchangeable afterwards (new blocks are created after each ‘edit’), the unknown creator designed a secure platform that could revolutionise industries way beyond finance. For those whose brains are still aching, business analyst Bernard Marr has put together a neat simplification of the secretive technology:

“Imagine a digital medical record: each entry is a block. It has a timestamp, the date and time when the record was created. And by design, that entry cannot be changed retroactively because we want the record of diagnosis, treatment, etc. to be clear and unmodified. Only the doctor, who has one private key, and the patient, who has the other, can access the information; information is only shared when one of those users shares his or her private key with a third party – say a hospital or specialist. This describes a blockchain for that medical database.”

With some 1,600 travel agencies, six airlines with around 150 aircrafts, more than 300 hotels with 214,000 beds, and 16 cruise-liners, Germany’s TUI Group are the world’s largest tourism company – and with such a large inventory, the benefits of blockchain technology are profound. Especially when a reported million-euro investment could see potential savings of some €100 million per year. As well as making its inventory more manageable and secure, a blockchain-based system could also see a breakaway from intermediaries, seeing suppliers interacting directly with travellers, and much lower costs for both parties.

TUI Group CEO, Fritz Joussen
TUI Group CEO, Fritz Joussen

“It will be very difficult for intermediaries to have sustainable business cases”, said group CEO Fritz Joussen this summer. “These platforms build reach by spending billions on advertising, and then they create monopolistic margins on top of what they have as sales and marketing. They do offer great sales and marketing. Booking.com is a great brand, but they create superior margins because they have monopolistic structures. Blockchain destroys this.”

Truth is, the technology’s potential uses extend way beyond its original purpose. Dubbed by some as the ‘second generation of the internet’, blockchain’s applications are nearly limitless, with any type of transaction securely held in a database accessible by all, but amenable only by you and a very tightly controlled other. Airlines and governments are already invested in the concept of a universally accepted blockchain ID, allowing for simpler and safer travel with just a biometric smartphone or wearable.

“When we look at the blockchain, we think about it a little differently than the cryptocurrency folks”, explains Stephen Dennis, director of data analytics at the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA). “At the DHS, one of our core missions is information sharing. Being able to have a ledger that has different levels of transparency for different partners is probably something we would want to do.” Put simply, everything from your identity to your latest Deliveroo can be stored securely; if blockchain could put an end to cybercrime, it would definitely make your life an awful lot easier.

Ritz-Carlton are one of the few chains to have embraced Netflix streaming

It gets interesting, though, when decentralised data and the unshakable security of blockchain come together with Sophia and the advent of artificial intelligence. As machine learning is finding its way into our hands and homes, strapped to our arms or controlling the car that enables the commute, your identity becomes increasingly digitised.

Imagine strolling undisturbed through the airport, stopping only for a coffee served up by a barista that already knows your order; stepping into an autonomous car at the other side, and it whisking you to a hotel that you chose yourself without realising; a curated soundtrack that you’re perpetually compiling playing as you drive. There’s no check-in as you already have your key, and behind the door is a welcome cocktail made just how you like it. You pop your smartphone on the desk only to find it being wirelessly charged by Qi, before opening up the minibar that’s stocked with the products you crave. The pillows, the fragrance, the bathroom amenities, the Netflix series… Secure and ubiquitous, a universal blockchain ID could store your inimitable personality, with AI ensuring it remains constantly up-to-date.

Unlike Sophia and spaceships, though, this tech revolution is quiet and unassuming – something of significant importance in luxury travel. In a sector dedicated to the art of service and experience, getting it all just right is invaluable. How did your self-drive car know you were in the mood for chill-out instead of disco today? Why did the maid deliver reassuring vanilla shower wash instead of invigorating peppermint?

As reported by The Wall Street Journal last year, Apple has purchased Emotient Inc., a startup that uses AI technology to read emotions by analysing facial expressions. Sound frightening? What’s more, a team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computer science and artificial intelligence lab (CSAIL) have built a device that can essentially run an ECG scan without wires. It’s called EQ-Radio, and is similar in make-up to a WiFi router. Worryingly, this means computers all around you – most importantly, those trying to sell you things – could access your emotions; but ethics are for another essay. It’s no secret that behemoths like Apple, Google and Amazon are vying for their place in the $2.7 trillion healthcare market, while their billions spent on R&D will surely see positive effects trickling down into other industries. Technology is getting in touch with its emotions.

It’s worth remembering that with every advancement in technologies like blockchain and AI, more time and money can be invested in enhancing the experience of travellers. And it’s important to note that this is a future-now situation, considering the big data that already encircles us. “We believe it’s an original and innovative concept”, says Grupo Habita founder, Carlos Couturier, of Chicago’s The Robey Hall. “We like to describe it as a social stay – a place where social media becomes physical. You can share your Instagram account when booking; share a room with other guests; and share the hotel’s social spaces – a café, bar, bike rental shop and laundry room – with locals.” That’s right: time saved checking somebody in can be transferred to stalking them on social media. In a nice way, of course.

The Robey Hall, Chicago
The Robey Hall, Chicago

This latest technological revolution needn’t be about robot butlers and motorised luggage handlers, and needn’t rub those in search of authenticity up the wrong way. This is a quiet revolution where the impressiveness of technology whirrs away intelligently behind the scenes: a quick stalking of Guest A could result in a curated itinerary that sees them spending the day with local artisans hand-making luxury items; and Guest B’s profile might see them visiting the kitchen of a new, zero-waste restaurant… Of course, each experience would be executed as seamlessly as their blockchain-assisted glide from airport to hotel. In distracting times, a universally secure ID, intelligent AI and emotional analysis could make much of those distractions go away.

Whilst Sophia might one day be in court fighting for her right to own the passport that would see her join Elon Musk’s Mars colony, the invisible tech in touch with your emotions is just around the corner, and is capable of transforming luxury and experiential travel. You don’t have to be a stargazing fantasist to embrace that.

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James Davidson

James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.