When Your Hotel Has Robot Delivery, You Order More Room Service

And I attempt to predict what might happen next.

Photo credit: Jay Cross, CC BY 2.0.

As regular Billfolders might remember, I spent New Year’s at the Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles Airport Hotel, visiting friends and repeatedly utilizing the services of the Sheraton’s robot butler:

New Year’s Adventures in the Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles Airport Hotel

The robot did exactly what you’d expect a delivery robot to do: it made bleep bloop noises; it displayed “expressions” on its touchscreen face; and when I stepped into the robot’s path to test its adherence to the First Law of Robotics, the robot did not harm me. It stopped — giving me something like a two-foot berth — and waited patiently for me to get out of the way.

The word “repeatedly” is important, because I’m not the only one who shows up at a hotel, discovers they have a robot that can deliver stuff to the room, and spends the rest of the stay seeing how many things they can get the robot to deliver.

As The Economist reports [UPDATED, because The Economist updated their story]:

Hoteliers would like to employ more robots

Tom Beedon, 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%. That is partly because guests are so taken with the novelty of it that they order more room service.

But in the long term, profitability will be enhanced because a robot is cheaper to employ than a human (the Relays are leased for $2,000 a month; they cannot be bought).

As The Economist notes—and as I learned first-hand when I asked the robot to bring me a gin and tonic—the robots cannot yet deliver food and drink beyond what can be carried in a sealed bottle or package. I’m guessing this is both a liability and a sanitary issue; if you can’t verify ID in-person, you might inadvertently serve a minor, and if you’re sending up a plate of eggs and hash browns, you’re going to get grease and crumbs all over the robot.

But The Economist also suggests the robot manufacturers are working on ways to fix that. (They don’t use the words “fingerprint” or “optical scan,” but that’s where my mind immediately went, in terms of confirming the robot was delivering alcohol to someone over 21. I guess the robot could also scan a drivers license or ID, but that’s less fun/creepy.)

Now let’s go back to that cost number for a minute. The robots lease for $2,000 a month and are theoretically available for 24 hours a day, although they do need time to recharge. If you do the math, that means the hotel is paying roughly $2.70 an hour for their robot employee.

And yes, if this really takes off the hotels will need more than one robot, and they’ll need to keep them maintained and cleaned, and all of that will add to the cost—but robots are still cheaper than humans, for now. (Human labor isn’t completely eliminated from this equation yet; we still need humans to put the slippers and the bottles of water inside the robot. For now.)

Which means that, theoretically, a few things might happen:

  1. A lot of hotels get a lot of robots. The friction of ordering room service goes down, the novelty goes up, and people buy more stuff.
  2. As with any situation in which time/investment/labor has to be distributed across an allotment of resources, some hotels take better care of their robots than others. This equation gets really interesting when you consider that, employment-wise, the number of robots might increase as the number of humans who can care for and clean them decrease.
  3. When the robots get gross, the humans stop using them. Asimov did not include this in his Laws of Robotics, and it’s an obvious oversight. If your robot shows up and there’s, like, a ketchup smear next to your food? And you didn’t even order anything that would require ketchup?
  4. Essentially, the friction of ordering room service is going to go back up. Eventually. Either the robots will take too long to deliver stuff (because the hotels haven’t rented enough robots/hired enough human help to get things done, see “resource allocation,” above) or people will start distrusting whether they should eat food that came out of the robot, did you even see that one YouTube video where they ran a black light over the robot???
  5. Plus, at some point the robot companies might jack up the rental price, since they own all the robots, and/or hotels might jack up the room service price, since they control all the robots.
  6. And then someone will figure out how to hack a robot and get free delivery. (And/or make the robot play pranks. Or worse. Use your imagination.)
  7. Someone is going to show up at a hotel with their own robot and send it down to the bar and ask the bartender to put a drink in its hopper.
  8. Hotels will start asking everyone to bring their own robots, the way airlines started telling people to bring their own food and tag their own bags. At this point in the timeline a lot of us will own robots, I guess? That might be interesting. I wonder if we’ll have people on Mars by then.
  9. Hotels will retire their now outdated robots, transition into a BYOR (like BYOD but for robots) system, keep a handful of human staff to run the bar and the restaurant if we don’t already have robots for that and put the labor of interacting with those staff back on the guests.
  10. We’ll still have to tell our bartenders that we want a gin and tonic, but we can theoretically send our robots down to pick it up. Some people will decide it’s easier to just go to the bar themselves, and that’ll become “a trend,” the novelty of picking up your own drinks and talking to a bartender, and we’ll be right back where we started.
  11. Except a lot of people will have robots, a lot of people will be out of jobs, and we might have humans on Mars.