Would You like Your Service Today Live or Programmed, Madam?
By Steven Ferry Chairman, International Institute of Modern Butlers | November 08, 2015
Hospitality executives are busy handling guest needs and issues, budgets, increasing market share, etc., so may not be looking sufficiently circumspectly at this fast-encroaching, robotic trend. Hence this article examining whence robots came, how far they have advanced into the workplace, and their future in hospitality. As we hominids are part of the equation, we can control where the trend goes: a talking head on TV saying that robots will take over by 2040 only means they will if we all act like robots and do and say whatever we are “programmed” to do and say.
Therein lies the key—as in an early, futuristic silent movie that showed a food conveyor belt in a canteen grinding to a halt after a new worker failed to take his soup bowl off the belt—because he didn’t like soup—and the mechanical breakdowns cascading until the whole, interconnected, automated society ground to a halt. Freedom of choice, a vital component in life, goes against the whole ethos of robotics and automation, which are designed to control according to fixed programs input by others in some distant time and location and according to the dogmas of the time.
The Ghost of Robots Past
Man has envisioned robots performing chores for decades, if not centuries: 2,400 years ago, Philo of Byzantium built a robot wannabe that poured wine when a cup was placed in its hand. A Czech dramatist, Karel Capek, coined the word robota in his 1920 play R.U.R. to describe the artificial creatures featured in the play. Robota means “work” in various Slavic languages, providing a clear indication of the role man envisions for his robots. The character, Harry Domin, declares (unadvisedly) in the play, “Work humiliates, anyone who’s forced to do it, is made small.”
In the 1940’s, they were still just dreaming about robots: a TV program showed a robot butler that would, at the press of a button, perform household chores so that mum did not have to work. An actor was dressed as the robot in the show, because robot technology was still as non-existent as in Philo’s time. As a side note, they called it a robot butler—perhaps based on the role Philo conceived for his robot, the butler profession being founded on wine service—and the moniker has stuck ever since: almost every robot created is marketed as a “robot butler.”
The incessant messaging over the decades from Madison Avenue selling “Don’t work, happiness comes from consumption and relaxation” kept alive the fantasy of a robotic servant—Rosie the Robot in the 1960’s Jetson’s cartoons, for instance, but a change occurred that moved the whole concept beyond the fanciful: robot technology was finally coming into being—General Motors introduced the first robot, Unimate, in an industrial setting—the definition of “robot” being “any machine that is smart enough to make autonomous decisions.”
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