Robots are not as new as you might think, but the threat of robots replacing human workers has been a persistent topic of discussion since at least the 1980s. While Leonardo da Vinci had the concept of a mechanical knight in 1435 [link], the latest “oh wow” article I’ve seen on robots was “A new Japanese hotel is staffed by robots, and it’s extremely terrifying” by Casey Tolan (@caseytolan) on Fusion [link]. I want to go there; don’t you? Per Tolan:

Henn-na Hotel—which means “Strange Hotel”—opens on Friday in the southwestern Nagasaki prefecture with a staff of about ten robots. The 72-room hotel is built in the middle of a theme park intended to recreate a small Dutch town.

The robots will check-in guests, carry bags, clean, store luggage, and answer guests’ questions in English or Japanese. The hotel’s management would like you to know that these robots are not the kind that are going to kill you or take over the world.

With big hotel chains consolidating — such as Marriott and Starwood [link] — and with reports that old-style hotels are losing business [link], perhaps a Robby the Robot [link] receptionist or porter is the way to go.

123_robots2_l12065683_ml copyYet, there’s a larger issue here and a real one for anyone contemplating what’s next for careers and organisations. For example, Alex Hern (@alexhern) and Dan Milmo (@DanMilmo) just published “Thinking machines: the skilled jobs that could be taken over by robots” in The Guardian [link]. Read also Conner Forrest’s (@ConnerForrest) report, “Chinese factory replaces 90% of humans with robots, production soars”, on TechRepublic [link]. I still recall the impressive HBR article from last December by William H. Davidow and Michael S. Malone: “What Happens to Society When Robots Replace Workers?” [link]. And, there are no fewer than 10 TED talks on how to live with robots [link].

To be fair, there’s another point of view here. You might want to check out Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) and his take on “The automation myth: Robots aren’t taking your jobs — and that’s the problem” on Vox [link]. Says Yglesias: “Rather than an accelerating pace of automation, we’ve actually been living through a slowdown in the pace of productivity growth. And that slowdown is a huge problem. Unless it reverses, we’ll be waking up soon to find ourselves in a depressing world of longer working years, unmanageable health-care needs, higher taxes, and a public sector starved of needed infrastructure resources.

“In other words, don’t worry that the robots will take your job. Be terrified that they won’t.”

I see the trend toward more robotics in society as irreversible and its impact growing steadily. For me, the intersection of robotics and nextsensing is a major one — and exciting, to boot. Independent of your feelings and attitude about robots (especially in your hotel room), you must admire the edgy mindset behind the experiment. Talk about thinking differently, having aspirations for the future and challenging the status quo! This seems to check all the boxes to qualify as a nextsensing alert. But is it really that simple? I don’t think it is.

  • On service-related industries: Service is an empathy business at its core. It’s about reaching an understanding between two (or more) human beings on what is needed or desired, and then delivering on it. This is why it is often called a “brand promise” as it is an empathetic contract between two parties. Whatever the future holds for Marriott and Starwood, both brands will have to fulfil their legacy reputations, with or without robots. This begs the question about the underlying social and emotional value of services like Airbnb [link]. While it is true that staying in other people’s homes while they are away opens an entirely new landscape of lodging options, is there not a human-to-human connection that is important to the lodging/value equation? If so, how do robots fit in?
  • On transportation-related industries: Are we ready for robotic taxis? If you are like me, you often discover hidden secrets about a new city from the taxi driver on your way to your, um, hotel. How would this experience be different in a driverless taxi powered by a robotic system, from reservations to drivers? Certainly the technology would allow you to “speak” to the car and get useful information in seconds. But would you really be conversing? And, more importantly, would you truly be getting insights into this new place compared to what you might learn from a cabby who has driven the streets for decades and knows all the local best places to see or dine?
  • On production-related industries: Sean Gallagher’s (@thepacketrat) recent post on arstechnica [link] discussed the trend toward computers talking to computers, instructing machines on how to perform. As Gallagher says via the title of his article: The future is the Internet of Things — deal with it. For any production facility that has struggled with implementing smoothly operating global teams, weave in computers and robots going forward and the mix will surely need some new “team” management skills heretofore not thought about.

In the 1940s, Isaac Asimov posited his famous “Three Laws of Robotics”:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

According to George Dvorsky (@dvorsky), Asimov later added a pre-eminent law [link]: 0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. I don’t believe Asimov (a genius to be sure) ever thought about robots handling room service from start to finish. That’s going to have to be our job.