(Note: The following article was published in the June 7, 2017, Hotel News Now magazine; it was written by Randy Pullen, the founder and current CEO/President of WageWatch.)
Artificial intelligence and robots are here, and increasingly will be able to do much of the work in hotels. Coming to terms with that can help manage fears and uncertainty.
Hotels are on the edge of a new era driven by automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Of course, I am not the first one to say this as there are many published articles extolling the virtues and sins of automation in the workplace and AI technology in the hotel industry.
Automation of guest messaging, mobile check-in and check-out, room assignments, motion detection, mobile key cards and facial recognition are already in service in many hotels around the world, and this is just the beginning.
A futuristic view is provided by Hideo Sawada, president of Sawada Holdings Co., which built the Henn na Hotel in Japan—Henn na is Japanese for “weird,” so this is the “Weird Hotel”—as a futuristic hotel and as a novelty add-on to an existing amusement park. The Weird Hotel is an automated limited service hotel, in operation though it has a few glitches that need to be worked out. Interestingly, it is not that highly rated by guests, but they keep coming to experience the future.
Tractica, a market intelligence firm focused on AI and robotics, forecasts global robotics market revenues to grow from $28 billion in 2015 to $151 billion a year by 2020. They predict the majority of the growth will come from “non-industrial” robots.
Tractica’s forecast does not include the future growth of AI and its impact on robotics. When you add AI to robotics what you end up with is a friendly robot that can learn and adapt to changes in the workplace. Both PricewaterhouseCoopers and McKinsey & Company have researched and written several white papers on the rapid advancement of AI and automation, and their coming impact on the workplace. In a study issued in March, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated 38% of jobs in the U.S. would be automated by the early 2030s. For the accommodations and food service sector, they estimated that 25% of jobs would be automated.
While 25% of the jobs in the accommodations and food service sector amounts to more than 3.3 million jobs being automated, this is low when compared to other studies. A report issued by McKinsey & Company in July 2016 calculated that, of all industrial sectors, the potential for automation is the highest in accommodations and food service. According to that analysis, 73% of the activities performed by workers in accommodations and food service have the potential for automation. Essentially, up to almost half of the jobs in hotels and restaurants could be automated in the next decade and a half.
Both studies likely underestimate how rapidly AI and automation will transform the workplace and our personal lives. It is not possible to predict with accuracy the speed with which new technologies will advance. Disruptive technologies such as desktop computers and smartphones changed the workplace and our personal lives much faster than predicted when first introduced into the marketplace. I predict the assimilation of AI and automation into our lives will happen much quicker in what is now being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, stated in his address to the Forum in January 2016: “We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another.” He goes on to say, “This will give rise to a job market increasingly segregated into ‘low-skill/low-pay’ and ‘high-skill/high-pay’ segments, which in turn will lead to an increase in social tensions.” I believe his is a linear projection of the future, not taking into consideration how human beings rapidly adapt to a changing environment.
As we have already seen, it is not just low-skill/low-pay jobs that are impacted by AI. Wall Street is going through a transition as financial advisors are being replaced by software programs with algorithms that make reliable, profitable investment decisions faster and with more accountability than humans. Speaking of accountability (note, I am a CPA), much of what accountants do is very susceptible to automation—audits, inventory tracking, supply chain automation and tax returns, just to name a few.
Hotels have already automated or are in the process of automating repetitive tasks for personal and work activities, and the rate of adoption is accelerating at a pace that was unimaginable just a few years ago. For the hospitality industry, all levels of the business—including the front of house, back of house and administration—are susceptible to automation in total or in part. Automation and AI are and will become the driving forces in the lodging industry, as management companies and team members learn to adapt and apply the new technology to improving the guest experience at their hotels.
As automation and robots with AI become the 800-pound gorilla in the workplace, the uncertainty of what people will do if their jobs disappear is always a fear. No doubt there will be a shift in jobs; however, new conditions create new opportunities. During the first Industrial Revolution, as people moved from the farms to the cities to work in factories, there was much turmoil; but in the long-term, the outcome was good as more jobs were created than lost. People learn to adapt to change and move from the old to the new as their expectations for the future change. We only need to look to our children to see the future. Kids say the future of tech is robots.
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