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Robot hired to greet visitors in Ottawa County administration building

Ottawa County's new robot won't look anything like this toy robot, but it's cute, right?

Ottawa County will have a new robot guide in the county building starting in January.

The robot will go by the name Tracey. Tracey has a digital face. It can talk and respond to questions, and display information on a large touch screen.

County administrator Al Vanderberg says the robot will help people find their way around the county building. And it’s cheaper than hiring a human.

"We'll be saving a significant amount of money from the next logical alternative," says county administrator Al Vanderberg

“If this is successful, we believe that we’ll be saving a significant amount of money from the next logical alternative,” he says.

Vanderberg says the county building has a layout that many people find confusing. Originally, it was designed to have a receptionist to help people find their way. But the county never hired a receptionist, and now the robot may be able to fill the role at a lower cost.

https://vimeo.com/278732339">Ottawa County Robot from https://vimeo.com/user47431776">Paul McManus on Vimeo.

The robot idea came about as Vanderberg and others studied how artificial intelligence could change how the county operates. He says a lot of people worry about AI replacing humans in jobs. But he sees AI as just one more technological advancement, a lot like adding computer systems in previous years.

“In our case, we have not laid people off as a result of putting computer systems on,” Vanderberg says. “But when a position becomes vacant, we evaluate it. And this would be one of the tools we would look at to see, do we really need to replace that position?”

Ottawa County is spending $20,000 for a six-week pilot program with Tracey the robot. If the county decides to keep the robot, the full cost will be $58,000, plus annual maintenance costs.


Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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