No more wrong tables

Updated: Feb 23

●Rise of AI in hospitality industry benefits consumers and business owners; not so much workers.

“Ugh...I didn’t order it.” An awkward silence follows as a customer denies a dish from a waiter. The waiter must have made a mistake. Frankly, it happens all the time. This familiar scene at a busy restaurant is soon to be a piece of memory (just like VCRs and pagers from the good old days) due to technology development. The rise of AI (Artificial Intelligence) may enable hospitality businesses to weed out inconvenience and mistakes made by humans, resulting in better service. Unfortunately, this advance does not bode well for the employees.

Haidilao, a popular Chinese hotpot restaurant chain, opened its “AI-operated” branch in Beijing in Sept. 2018. Not only do robotic arms in the storage room pick up the dishes ordered by customers, but robotic waiters also deliver them. (Customers order food through the restaurant’s tablet PCs.) Meanwhile, around the same time, Alibaba, China’s global e-commerce company, opened its AI-assisted hotel, FlyZoo Hotel. Guests at the hotel do not need to deal with a receptionist since the facial recognition system automatically checks them in. Also, robots bring room service orders to a guest’s room and dishes to a dining hall.

For hospitality business owners, lower labor costs and the “consistency” of robots are the major attractions to adopt AI technology. “It’s all about the efficiency and the consistency of service because the robots are not disturbed by human moods. Sometimes, we say we are not in the mood, but the system and the robot will always be in the mood,” said Andy Wang, CEO of Alibaba Future Hotel Management, in an interview with Reuters. Alibaba also said the robots can dramatically cut labor costs, without offering many details.

Most of the time, customers seem to prefer AI because they find safety and convenience through the application of technology. “We don’t have to waste our time on registering and waiting in lines,” said Sam Wang, a Chinese guest at FlyZoo Hotel, in an interview with CCTV. “Many services like check-in can be done with a smartphone. Secondly, I feel safer with the help of this technology and these smart facilities.”

Yet, the adoption of AI is facing some headwinds. First, the industry still needs human hands. AI-operated restaurants and hotels like Haidilao and FlyZoo Hotel still employ many people, and they manage robots to expedite the workflow. And employees who feel jilted have been raising their voice. About 8,000 Marriott International employees took to the streets in late 2018, demanding job security against automation. The industry has tried to appease them, saying that robots are not taking their jobs, but helping them.

Freshly-minted technologies have always replaced older ones. CDs replaced cassette tapes; mp3 files replaced CDs; and now, most people just use a streaming service. It seems like humans are beginning to face a challenge from another, potentially superior, being. For some reason, I cannot stop humming “video killed the radio star” in my head. And I hope, at least, robots do not kill us.

The Asians