Will AI Be the Death of Reception?

Advanced technology will soon greet you at the door, but human contact isn’t dead yet

reprints


Artificial intelligence isn’t coming for the receptionists, security guards and doormen of the world quite yet. There’s a lot of lobby to cover first before bots and holograms start directing you to the right elevator. 

For AI to aid or replace the modern reception area, it will require a large language model (LLM) with a training model layered over it, said Eric Brody, managing partner at Anax Real Estate Partners, a Manhattan-based capital advisory and development firm.

SEE ALSO: Jim Dillavou Talks Lincoln Property Retail Expansion at ICSC

“Will AI replace or change the receptionist?” Brody said. “Do I think that it completely dominates over the next six months to a year? The answer’s no. We’re giving too much credit to what AI is capable of. But let’s talk about the current functionality of it. The answer would be no, because we still interface with warm bodies. Can a language model assist an existing business with creating efficiencies within what they do and mitigate the cost of labor? Yes.”

Building AI on such a LLM requires a case-by-case analysis of a receptionist’s daily duties, whether at an office or a multifamily residence, Brody said. “If part of their job has to do with following up with people all the time, AI could help you there. Instead of you having to write the same email over and over again, it can create efficiencies for you so that when real trouble happens in real life, you can actually focus on that because AI is taking some of your menial tasks away.”

That’s as far as it goes right now, though. 

“If you have to assist executives with a specific function where there’s a human involved, well, guess what? AI is not a robot who is coming and taking over that,” Brody said. “You still need to be a human. It can handle some of the administrative functions, but you would have to know specifically what the workflow of that receptionist is in order to make an application of AI for it.”

Although not fully an AI product, self-service kiosks have been a step toward receptionist-less entreé to offices, including those doing a volume business in multifamily leasing.

“Our biggest market to date has been new construction, where there’s a giant 55-inch screen on the wall that onsite teams use to tour prospects, because they can’t physically tour the property yet,” said Brent Steiner, founder and CEO of Engrain, a Denver-based company that provides multipurpose interactive touchscreens and kiosks for leasing offices. “And what we’re seeing recently is a shift toward reducing staff on site. So, we introduced a kiosk which is sort of a self-serve traditional kiosk model that serves multiple purposes.”

AI is often wrongly conflated with technology in general, but Engrain’s kiosks are moving toward being more AI-centric in fulfilling the needs of new developments attempting to bring prospective buyers closer to their properties, said Steiner.

“We’re now introducing kiosks in a lot of different physical environments,” he said. “And what we’ve noticed with our multifamily clients is that the needs on the multifamily side are a bit different because the residents and all the visitors that come to those properties on an ongoing basis versus commercial are a little different.”

That means that the pace of replacing humans with tech will vary by property type. “Higher-end properties are more reluctant to replace staff just because of the service aspect,” Steiner said. “But it is very important in the multi-modal part of this because you’re receiving a lot of different types of people for leasing, for touring, but it also could be residents, subcontractors and visitors. I think that’s where AI is going to be important as this evolves.”

Currently, Steiner sees demand for Engrain’s kiosks coming primarily from older multifamily properties, many of them more suburban, garden-style developments across the U.S.

“The Sun Belt and the West Coast are the hottest spots, and in D.C. a bit,” said Steiner. “It aligns exactly with where the multifamily market is growing, including Dallas, Atlanta, L.A. and Seattle. What’s driving this too is because staffing has been difficult at these properties, really since COVID. The industry has had a tough time bouncing back from that from a labor perspective, so that sort of pushed the technology forward first. And I think AI will just make that more comfortable.”

Steiner says that moving toward true AI in reception areas will take a while.

“I think we’re in early innings because right now the industry is just getting its arms around training models,” he said. (His own company dates from 2009.) “You can’t have AI unless you have a model that you’re training how to react. We are partnered with multiple chatbot companies, including EliseAi. They’re a big chatbot company in our space that’s AI-based. So, we are contributing data to those models — location data, map data, descriptions about the apartments — and then leveraging those models across these different technologies. I think that’s very important to be able to have a good system.”

Although multifamily developers would love a plug-and-play solution for their reception area needs, that is also a way off, said Steiner.

“That really can’t be until we understand how the technology is being used,” he said. “And I think the resident demographic is a perfect example of this. Where a lot of the traffic that would go to these leasing offices, or residents that have a question or a problem, they want to interact with a human. That’s a great example of the potential for a model to learn over time. What are the expectations of these users as they’re using the system and then training it to respond, not just with answers, but with transactional outcomes? If I’m a resident, for example, that’s coming to the leasing office because I have a maintenance request, then the technology needs to provide a service request form, or a QR code. Those are obvious examples, but that’s where it needs to evolve.”

Eventually, a natural language AI interface with the user is what everyone wants, he added.

“We’re not going to fully make this comfortable for users until the AI technology is to the point where you can talk to it,” said Steiner. “So somebody can walk in and interact with the natural language processing kiosk, which is what we’re focused on building for websites right now. Where somebody can go in and then literally say this is what I need and have the interface be able to react to that. I think that’s where we think the future will be, not just tapping the screen.”

The result of this reception area technology evolution is already seen in physical space reductions and other changes, said Steiner.

“We are seeing some operators closing these spaces all together,” he said. “We’re seeing quite a bit of that, and in other cases, they’re building out vestibules for some technology.”

Steiner describes the potential changes in reception as closing “an arrival gap.”

“When somebody arrives at the space, there’s an awkward moment of knowing what to do,” Steiner said. “And my phone is typically not enough to deal with that. So I think this will continue to evolve with technology like kiosks. You’re already seeing those at airports, banks, and McDonald’s. This is not a new concept. But, yes, I think the physical space will change and evolve over time.”

Philip Russo can be reached at prusso@commercialobserver.com.