A Hotel with No Staff
What if you stayed at a hotel and never saw a soul apart from the other people staying at the establishment. You could stroll in and self check-in at kiosks at the front desk; put your luggage on a cart taken by a robotic bellboy to your room; and order food via touchscreen in your room (cooked by humans in the basement of the hotel) which is delivered to your room by said robotic bellboy. This scenario is quite feasible today. If you're willing to make your own bed (complicated for robots), a roomba will vacuum the room and a scooba can wash the bathroom floors.
In fact, the hotel Yotel opening soon on 10th Ave and 41st Street in New York offers some of these features already. After self check-in, guests can give their luggage to a robotic arm or bellboy called Yobot. Yobot will put luggage into storage bins if the guest arrived before check-in or just wants to take a stroll before going up to the room.
Some people are calling Yotel's robotic bellboy a gimmick, but it does herald a time when artificial intelligence and robots will automate an increasing number of services. This is not entirely new to us: airport staff will often usher you to self check-in before flights, many of us have a hard time remembering when we bought a ticket for the metro from a booth manned by an operator, or got cash out at the bank from a human teller.
A world full of machine helpers won't be a cold empty place. After all, airports, train stations and banks still bustle with us - the consumers. The problem is what happens to all the people who lose their jobs in the process. Unlike the last wave of automation, machines are not going to just increase our productivity, they will replace the need for humans altogether in some professions. Initially, the effect will be felt most in blue color professions but soon, we'll see artificial intelligence replacing jobs higher up in the value chain (lawyers and doctors, for example). In January 2011, the New York Times reported that artificial intelligence software could search millions of legal documents for patterns and keywords at a cost of less than $100,000, a task for which armies of lawyers and paralegals usually charge millions of dollars.
Governments have to build vocational schools especially geared to help those who lose their jobs to machines transition to new skills and jobs. Some of the new jobs created will in fact be thanks to the emerging industries that robots help create, but until we teach people how to work in those fields, they will find the transition incredibly painful. Many will be left depressed and jobless, and America will further plummet into a country where the gap between rich and poor is shamefully large.
Perhaps you can ponder that thought in Yotel's reasonably priced (for Manhattan) $150/night rooms.
Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.
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