In a science fiction future, we’ll arrive at the hotel in our driverless taxi, check in at the reception desk staffed by androids then follow the robot porter as it carries our bags to our room.
Except, of course, this is already science fact.
Robots are already working in some hotels – the Henn-na Hotel in Sasebo, Japan is staffed entirely by machines including one, bizarrely, resembling a dinosaur.
But that’s just how things roll in high-tech Japan, right?
Nope, robots are now making an appearance in hotels around the planet – and more are on their way.
In a Marriott hotel in Ghent, Belgium, a diminutive humanoid robot named Mario has been working since June 2015.
He welcomes guests in 19 languages and guards the buffet.
A similar device, this one powered by IBM’s human-mimicking Watson computer, has just taken up a concierge position at a Hilton McLean hotel in Virginia.
Last year, Royal Caribbean installed cocktail-mixing robot bartenders on several of its cruise ships.
Rise of the machines
Gimmicks, yes, but their developers promise they’re getting more sophisticated by the month. Mario will soon learn how to order taxis.
So the rise of the hotel machines seems unstoppable, but will it come at the cost of human interaction and human jobs?
And will guests really want to stay in robot-run hotels?
These questions are clearly taxing travel and tourism experts, who spent much of a recent major industry trade event, ITB Berlin, discussing their implications.
“A lot of jobs considered non-automatable in the past are now considered to be automatable,” Oxford University’s Carl Benedikt Frey, an expert on technology and employment, told delegates.
Frey and fellow academics have ranked jobs in terms of how likely they are to be computerized in a study that shows some travel and tourism jobs more at risk than others.
Recreational therapists, such as those who work in wellness resorts, are at the safe end of the scale.
Tour guides face much gloomier prospects – although Frey said that depends heavily on circumstance.
“Someone standing on a bus with a microphone and someone riding on a horse with you across the Alps are very different,” he said. “The first is quite automatable, the second is not.”
U.S. online bookings company Travelzoo gathered some stats ahead of ITB Berlin that suggest many people worldwide are at ease with the idea of being looked after by machines on their travels.
Of 6,000 travelers surveyed globally, nearly two thirds said they’d be comfortable.
Richard Singer, Travelzoo’s European president, says he welcomes the swiftly advancing day when apps and machines will get us from lobby to room without the “service inconsistencies” of humans.
But, he says, it’ll still be worth hotels ensuring that personal touch, not least to try to up-sell us to bigger suites.
“I would be very surprised if we get to the point where hotels are entirely manned by robots,” he tells CNN.
“But who would’ve thought a few years ago that there would be driverless cars or drone planes.”
On hand at ITB Berlin to demonstrate the kind of service we can expect was ChihiraKanae, a robot created by Toshiba technicians in Japan.
With human features and facial expressions, she’s one of the most lifelike androids around, even though she doesn’t move much.
She demonstrated her abilities by greeting passersby in multiple languages and, rather surprisingly, telling random strangers her star sign.
Marriott’s Mario robot also made the trip, showing off his dance moves at the command of Fabrice Goffin, co-CEO of Belgium’s Zora Robotics.
Goffin’s original robot creations – specially programmed versions of the popular Alderbaran Nao robot – were developed for the health industry, but caught the eye of Ghent Marriott General Manager Roger Langhout.
“I thought, let’s give it a go and see how it develops,” Langhout says.
“As soon as we saw Mario interacting with our guests we saw a smile. Nobody has seen it before.”
Though he acknowledges Mario is a novelty, Langhout claims the robot can do something that no human has ever managed – make PowerPoint presentations interesting.
“We’ve found that content retention by participants is increased when Mario makes the presentation.”
But will he be putting Marriott employees out of a job?
No, says Langhout.
“We like innovation and technology, but we’re well aware it can never replace human interaction. You can only program him to a certain level.”
How to stop a robot stealing your job
Oxford academic Frey says it’s too early to say how big an impact robots will make on employment levels.
“It’s very difficult to assess how people will react to robot concierges,” he said. “They’ve been well received in Japan, but that doesn’t mean that it will be the same in Germany or Sweden.”
For young people wanting to proof themselves against being replaced by a machine, Frey has some sage advice.
“Be good at social interaction, be creative, be able to interact with the world,” he added.
In other words, even though robots may soon be checking us in, that’s no excuse for us to check out.