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Washington State University
Dividend - Fall 2022 Research

First Siri, Now “Sara”: Why People Prefer Female Service Robots

By Sara Zaske

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People are more comfortable talking to female rather than male robots working in service roles in hotels, according to a study by Carson College of Business hospitality researcher Soobin Seo.

The study, which surveyed about 170 people on hypothetical service robot scenarios, also found the preference was stronger when the robots were described as having more human features. The findings are published online in the International Journal of Hospitality Management.

“People have a tendency to feel more comfort in being cared for by females because of existing gender stereotyping about service roles,” says Seo, assistant professor of hospitality at WSU Everett. “That gender stereotype appears to transfer to robot interactions, and it is more amplified when the robots are more humanlike.”

Even before the pandemic, the hotel industry struggled with high turnover of employees. Seo notes some hotels have turned to robots and automation for a variety of functions from dishwashing and room cleaning to greeting guests and delivering luggage.

Examples range from the female humanized robots named “Pepper” at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Las Vegas to the fully automated FlyZoo hotel chain in China where guests interact only with robots and artificial intelligence (AI) features.

Feminine, humanlike service robots rate higher than those with male, machinelike features

For the study, survey participants were presented with one of four scenarios about interacting with an AI service robot at a hotel. In one scenario, they were greeted by a male service robot named “Alex” described as having a face and humanlike body. A second scenario was worded exactly the same with just two changes: the robot’s gender was female, and its name was “Sara.” In two other scenarios, the robots were both gendered and named differently but described as “machinelike” with an interactive screen instead of a face.

The respondents ranked how they felt about the interactions. The participants presented with the female robot scenarios rated the experience as more pleasant and satisfying than those who had scenarios with male robots. The preference for the female robot was more pronounced when the robots were described as looking more human.

Seo cautions that replacing human hospitality workers with AI robots of any gender raises many issues that need further research. For instance, if a robot breaks down or fails in service in some way, such as losing luggage or getting a reservation wrong, customers may want help from a human employee.

Further research to examine influence of AI robot personality traits

Seo is also investigating how the personality of AI robots may impact customers’ perceptions, such as if they’re extroverted and talkative or introverted and quiet. These are important considerations for AI robot developers as well as for hospitality employers to consider as they think about adopting robots more widely, she says.

“We may start to see more robots as replacements of human employees in hotels and restaurants in the future, so we may find some of the psychological relationships we see in human-to-human interaction also implemented in robot interactions,” she says.