Robots are taking an increasing role in all aspects of the Las Vegas visitor experience, with some resort operators banking on automation and artificial intelligence to reduce labor costs and appeal to visitors.
Last month, Vdara Hotel and Spa, a non-gaming Las Vegas Strip property managed by MGM Resorts International, unveiled Fetch and Jett, a pair of Relay robots that deliver snacks and other goodies to rooms. These aren’t the first robots to serve customers on the Las Vegas Strip. For over a year, Tipsy Robot, in Planet Hollywood’s Miracle Mile Shops (Planet Hollywood is owned by Caesars Entertainment), has used robot bartenders to serve drinks. Several hotels use AI concierges to help connect guests with activities 24/7. And there is the potential for robots to perform many tasks behind the scenes, from cutting cake to flipping burgers.
There have even been pole dancing robots, which made an appearance at Sapphire’s gentlemen’s club during last January’s Consumer Electronics Show. There is no job that people do, it seems, that is not in danger of robot competition.
Which might be why the Culinary Union, which represents over 57,000 Las Vegas hotel, restaurant, and hospitality workers, has taken an interest in robots’ growing presence in Las Vegas resorts.
“The Culinary Union has negotiated new automation and technology language in our latest 5-year agreements,” says Geoconda Arguello Kline, secretary-treasurer of the union. “The language is innovative and we are the first union in the United States (and probably the world) that has such groundbreaking technology language that will protect workers. The automation and technology language ensures that workers have a say in how technology is implemented in their jobs, clear goals on retraining and retention, and that any layoffs are done in order by seniority with each worker having recall rights if ever jobs are available again in the future.”
In considering the possible threat robots may pose for union jobs, Arguello Kline cites a 2017 McKinsey Global Institute report which concluded that while 60 percent of occupations had significant activities that could automated, demand for labor might potentially grow thanks to increases in productivity and technological progress. The report suggests that three to 14 percent of the global workforce may need to switch jobs due to automation, so job retraining will be essential to helping workers survive this transition. This is why, in the latest round of contract negotiations, Arguello Kline’s union insisted on retention and retraining language.
Arguello Kline says that, so far, robots have not hurt union members. Quite the contrary.
“The Culinary Union," she says, “has fought hard to protect workers over our 83 years and this new agreement is the best contract with the highest wage increases that workers have ever had.”
Farther from the Strip, if there isn’t great excitement about the potential for service robots, there isn’t great fear, either. Sandra Wachter, a lawyer and research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, thinks that while robots in hotels might have some initial novelty value, they might not make a huge impact—at least not for a while.
“With the pace at which technology develops, robots will play an ever more prominent role in our lives,” Wachter says. “While our specific responses depend significantly on the particular capabilities of a robot, in general people will likely find robots in leisure settings exciting and perhaps slightly odd at first, but as with most new technologies we will likely quickly grow accustomed to them.”
Similarly, despite all of the hype about robot bartenders and room service runners, Yulia Frumer, the Bo Jung and Soon Young Kim Professor of East Asian Science and Technology at Johns Hopkins University, thinks that the immediate benefits of robotic hospitality workers may have been overstated.
“Service robots are mostly a gimmick,” she says. “They definitely draw customers because of the experience they provide—not because of the function they perform. Purely in terms of functionality, it would be easier and cheaper to employ humans.”
That last point seems to go against everything we’ve heard about robot workers. They don’t join unions, they don’t need benefits, and they don’t call out sick, so surely they must be less expensive than illogical, error-prone humans? Possibly not, according to Frumer.
“There is not a good potential for labor-saving, actually,” she says. “It is true that robots can take over a particular task, but for a robot to function properly one would need to employ multiple humans for design, maintenance, customer service (for when things inevitably go wrong), and supervision. So, one robot saves labor of one unskilled human and instead requires labor of several unskilled--and skilled—humans.”
Frumer believes that the true economic benefits of service robots will be the appeal they give to customers, not labor savings. And yet even the charm of machine service has its limits.
“Robotic appeal is not universal,” Frumer explains. “Japanese roboticists invest a lot in trying to figure out what particular features the Japanese public finds likable. Many of these features are culture-specific, so something that may be intriguing in Japan would be perceived as creepy in the United States.”
Furthermore, international guests may be frustrated with limitations in voice recognition systems, which don’t handle accents well. So in addition to humans not being able to understand your attempts at a new language in your vacation destination, you might confound robots, too.
And, according to Wachter, liability and data protection bring potential risks to a broad robot rollout.
“In order to ensure seamless robot and human interaction these systems need to collect a lot of data,” she says, “like location data, consumer preferences, and potential sensitive data such as health status from face recognition). One question is how to protect these data from potential cyber security threats (e.g. hacks or unauthorized access). The other issue is how this data should be used once collected.”
Then, there is the issue of who is responsible when a system fails and possibly harms a guest. Is it the robot’s owner? Its manufacturer? The software coder?
Further, as robots become more common, we will have to make choices about how they are utilized. Depending on what we decide, robots could be humanity’s best friend or another thing that makes the world a worse place.
“Automation will save time and resources in the private and public sector, but how we deal with the potential large displacement of the workforce is still unclear,” Wachter argues, backing up the point made in the McKinsey report. Income tax is a major funding source for governments everywhere. Robots don’t earn income, and, Wachter notes, “there is hesitance to impose further tax on companies.”
Tax policies are just one piece of the puzzle. “We have to make sure that automation benefits society as a whole," Wachter says. “For example, are we ensuring that prices decrease due to the savings on labor costs and that the future jobs pay a fair salary?”
Given the recent uproar over escalating parking and resort fees in Las Vegas, you might be forgiven for being pessimistic that corporate management will roll labor savings into lower prices and higher wages rather than using it to drive shareholder value. So while it’s possible that robots can make Las Vegas a more affordable vacation spot and a better place to earn a living, it’s certainly not a given.
Even if the price of cocktails won’t decrease when they’re poured by robots, life with robots might not be horrible. Robots might not help us save money or earn higher wages, but they probably won’t be actively trying to hurt us. Fears of a robot revolution, though, persist. For decades, we’ve been imprinted with the horrifying prospect of our robot servants rising up and killing or—worse yet—enslaving us.
Frumer, however, thinks that the real villains are us, and robots are far more likely to be victims than aggressors.
“Vandalism is a real worry,” she says. “People are awful (even in Japan) and when unsupervised are very likely to try to abuse and damage the robot. Remember the hitchhiking robot that was dismembered in Philly? This is a very likely outcome. When robots are in a public view people are restrained, but if they think that nobody is watching they will try to mess with the robot—motivated by either a pure curiosity ('let's take it apart to see how it works') or by sadistic impulses.”
So the next time you’re in Las Vegas, be nice to your robot bartender. If you’ve read enough science fiction, you know that the way we treat robots will probably teach them how to treat us.
David G. Schwartz is a historian, Director of the Center for Gaming Research & instructor at UNLV, and former casino employee who writes about casinos, gaming, tourism, & Las Vegas