Is automation destined to kill the human element?

David Berkus, angel investor.

TORONTO—Is technology going to kill your job? This may be a surprising question to kick off the keynote address at the Hospitality Industry Technology Exposition & Conference 2017, but it is a question that many professionals need to ask themselves as our world grows more automated. David Berkus, prolific angel investor and presenter of the conference’s keynote address, drew on historical data to claim that not only is technology going to bulldoze a number of established professions, including many throughout the hospitality industry, he is confident in his prediction for when this digital changing of the guard will take place.

First of all, it is important to ask which jobs are at risk for replacement at the hands of automation. After all, self-driving cars are expected to replace truck drivers, taxi and limo services as well as delivery drivers in the near future. According to Berkus, middle management will be among the first jobs lost as automation becomes more prevalent due to a rise in instantaneous communication, allowing company leaders to more effectively interact with employees. Berkus said commodity salespeople, report writers, announcers, accountants, bookkeepers and journalists are all destined for the digital chopping block. Even doctors are not immune to the power of automation, and are expected to be replaced in operating theaters by precise machines that never make mistakes.

This will be Berkus’ 38th consecutive HITEC conference, and he would like to think he knows a thing or two about studying historical data over time. He found that approximately every 55 years a “golden age” of technology takes place, demolishing and replacing established jobs with new professions that often require more technical knowledge. Berkus’ data shows that between 1980 and 2016, the number of jobs requiring higher levels of analytical skill grew 94 percent.

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All told, 38 percent of U.S. jobs are currently at risk for being replaced by automation, while 47 percent of U.S. jobs are expected to become computerized within two decades. This is based on, according to Berkus, that “golden age” of technology. In 1771, the advent of factories, textiles and the telegraph displaced untold craftsmen used to working meticulously by hand. This would be followed by the railway revolution in 1829, the steel and electrical revolution in 1875, the mass production revolution of 1908, and most recently the digital revolution beginning in 1971.

Which means we’re due for another big shakeup between 2022 and 2025: The automation revolution.

What we know is that periods such as these are predicated by a downturn, followed by an influx of new job creation. Berkus postulated that travel is in a good position to survive, with it providing 28 percent of all service exports in the U.S., as well as growing interest from millennial travelers. What’s more, developments in the Internet of Things is expected to generate $3.5 trillion in economic output and 22 million jobs by 2035, and Berkus pointed to existing robot delivery systems being used in hotels as the precursor to a potential new position.

“I don’t think it will be long before you see robot technicians in hotels,” he said during his address. “We can bet on it; I’d like to see who’s right.”

A short list of jobs expected to be disrupted by automation.

Oh, the Humanity

Operators like to fall back on hospitality’s intrinsic link to the “human element” of service, but a growing number of guests out there seem fascinated with avoiding this element. Text messaging, mobile check-in options and even robot delivery services all show a willingness in a subset of guests to abstain from human contact.

If this is true, it’s up to hotels to create new touchpoints as soon as they can. This is where the concept of the Internet of Things comes into play. The IoT is a complex interweaving of the physical world with the digital, or as Dan Phillips, owner of hospitality technology consulting firm Dare to Imagine describes it as “the convergence between IT, technology, operations and engineering.”

By working with the IoT, hotels will be able to provide augmented-reality solutions that allow them to interact with the property using devices to control guestrooms, resolve issues and more without ever speaking to a human, but these things cannot be achieved without commitment from operators. Philips said the number of hotels out there with poor infrastructure builds incapable of supporting IoT technology remains high, serving as a barrier for all future development in this area.

“Legacy systems are going to be the biggest prevention behind getting IoT in hotels,” Phillips said. “Disparate systems have to talk to each other, and IoT doesn’t get far without strong communication between devices.”

Barclay Brown, ‎business development executive at IBM Watson’s consumer IoT division, developed a program allowing hotels and hospitals to serve as interactive locations using the IoT, but it comes with caveats. For one, many hotels are unwilling to install any device in a room that ambiguously listens to guests demands, such as the Amazon Echo. Guests want to know that technology is available to them, but it can be disabled if they desire.

What’s more, if a hotel manages to perfectly network its technology together in perfect harmony, it will only become a greater target for hackers.

“What if a property falls victim to ransomware and hackers can pause the elevators in place, or set all guestroom thermostats to 100 degrees,” Phillips said. “It would take three days just to go over the potential security concerns here.”

However, Phillips said hotels need to figure something out in order to keep pace with this technology.

“Are guests ready for this? Guests are, but we haven’t even been able to take advantage of the technology they already carry in their pockets,” Phillips said. “Is hospitality ready? Some hotels are, some aren’t. IoT is already in some hotels. Think about Wi-Fi authentication, that’s a textbook example. Millennials are willing to give you a little bit of their soul for some service, but where do regulations and laws factor into privacy concerns as it relates to data? I don’t think it’s prohibitive, but it must be analyzed.”