IN A recent blog post, Gulliver expressed his exasperation at having to interact with other humans when he stayed at hotels. After all, in the age of mobile check-in and automated bartenders, it must be possible to swerve most of these pointless encounters (and avoid having to hand over tips for the most mundane services, such as pouring a beer or being shown to your room).
One solution that didn’t occur to him was robot butlers. The M Social Singapore hotel is introducing a droid that can deliver room service to guests. It navigates using 3D cameras and can negotiate lifts and manoeuvre around people wandering down the corridors. The M Social is far from the first establishment to employ such robots. The machine, called Relay (pictured), which is made by Savioke, a Californian firm, already does shifts at some Aloft and Residence Inn hotels.
Tom Breedon, the general manager of the Residence Inn at Los Angeles airport, says using the robot for deliveries increases revenue per available room, a key industry measure, by at least 0.5%. This is partly because a robot is cheaper than a human (the Relays are leased for $2,000 a month; they cannot be bought). But it is also because guests are so taken by the novelty of being served by a robot that they order more room service.
At a recent hotel-industry conference in Los Angeles, executives claimed that machines that deliver room service and clean rooms will be the norm within five years. Relay robots are currently limited in what they can carry—small bottles of drink and tubes of toothpaste are the limit. But it surely won’t be long before a robot can deliver a full tray of breakfast to your bed.
It is easy to understand why customers are keen on robots. Aside from the novelty, a machine does not expect to be tipped. It may be quicker to arrive with the guest’s order, and, maybe most importantly for the sluggards amongst us, it probably won’t recoil when guests answer the door dressed only in their underpants.
All of which leaves hotel staff as the only potential losers. This is a sensitive subject for hoteliers and robot-makers alike. In Mr Breedon’s presentation, he denies that using Relay means employing fewer staff. Rather, he claims that he has to hire more people as more guests flock to his hotel. That may be true in the short term, but if robot waiters become as commonplace as the industry assumes, the novelty will quickly wear off and they will inevitably need fewer human employees.
Steve Cousins, Savioke’s founder, is more realistic. In an article for TechCrunch, he accepts that his machines will eliminate the need for many of those currently working at hotels. But he argues that automation means jobs will be displaced rather than lost. “Dull and low paid occupations” will go, he writes, and be replaced by more interesting careers. This has frequently been true in the past. The Luddites, for example, burned weaving machines that were threatening their jobs in the 19th century. Yet as machines increased output and lowered prices, employment went up along with demand. The number of people working for weavers quadrupled between 1830 and 1900.
There are two big differences today, however. One is the speed at which new technological advances are introduced. Until the market catches up with the changes, there will probably be a lag between people’s jobs being automated away and new ones being created. We also seem to be heading for a more protectionist world. One reason why a Singaporean hotel might be so keen on employing Relay is that it has a shortage of people willing to work in Mr Cousin’s “dull and low paid occupations”. That is partly because of restrictions on foreign workers. Likewise, in London as many as 70% of jobs in the travel and tourism sector depend on migrants, according to the Association of British Travel Agents. If such labour is in short supply once Britain “takes back control” of immigration after Brexit, then hotels will face a simple choice: employ cheap robots or pay high wages for locals who are not keen on the jobs they have to offer. Expect more droids knocking on your hotel door with your morning coffee.