LAS VEGAS – The arrival of the machines is inevitable. And Sin City knows it.
MGM Resorts International this year plans to install at Las Vegas resorts an unknown number of automated beverage systems programmed to mix hundreds of different drinks – all at the touch of a button.
It’s a job that for many years depended on the hands of living, breathing service workers. But as the incoming technology moves closer to Southern Nevada casinos, rank-and-file union workers can’t say for certain whether machines will force them to abandon jobs they’ve held for years – more than a decade in some cases – to develop new skills far from the threat of automation.
In the offices of MGM, leaders have been reluctant to reveal how many of these systems are coming – or how many workers might be displaced.
“We are focused on supporting employees,” Brian Ahern, MGM’s director of corporate media relations, said in a statement, “and ensuring this transition is as smooth as possible.”
The coming of these machines has raised several important questions: What does a future with robots look like in Las Vegas? What will happen to a service industry hopeful that union powers will provide protection? Should workers be afraid?
“Show me a car that (is) built on an assembly line that isn’t populated with robots and humans together,” said Robert Rippee, director of the Hospitality Lab at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute.
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Technology allowing collaboration between humans and machines is now transferring to the hospitality industry, forcing companies to recalibrate the labor force and reinvent the ways they use personnel.
“I’m surprised, in some cases, it’s taken this long,” Rippee said. “On the other hand, it’s certainly understandable that people are saying: ‘That’s my livelihood, that’s my job. You’re going to bring a machine in? What am I going to do?'”
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This is not the first time MGM has rolled out automated technology.
In August 2018, the gaming giant quietly installed automated beverage systems – known as “Back of House Automated Service Bars” – at the MGM Springfield resort in Massachusetts.
Imagine an advanced version of the soda fountains at a Burger King or Five Guys – a metal box equipped with a touch screen and dispensing apparatus. Service workers select the drink on the screen. A tap on the screen commands the machine to precisely measure and mix liquids dispensed into a cup or glass sitting below. Each automated service bar is programmed with hundreds of drink combinations.
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Customers never see or interact with the beverage systems. They simply order and wait for the order to arrive.
The technology, according to MGM, eliminates redundant human labor, allowing front of house employees to self-serve as guest’s order and reducing wait times.
Efficiencies aside, the introduction of this concept raised concerns among workers and became a central issue last year in MGM’s negotiations with Nevada’s largest labor union: Culinary Local 226.
‘Jobs are never going to be eliminated’
Rebecca Klausky has spent the last 15 years working as a Las Vegas cocktail server.
A Mandalay Bay employee, she is one of more than 60,000 Culinary Local 226 workers in Nevada and 22,000 at MGM properties.
Over the years, as both worker and traveler, she has witnessed hospitality technology come and go: iPad menus, Check-in kiosks – even small robots that deliver guests toothbrushes and towels straight to hotel rooms.
“They’ll put it on a little robot and they send it up to the room,” Klausky said of a recent hotel stay. “It was kind of like a Roomba.”
But Klausky hasn’t worried about machines taking her job too much. She depends on the union to protect her paycheck from the coming of the machines.
“It was bound to happen,” Klausky said of automated technology. “This job gives you a lot of leeway and flexibility. It’s nice when you work for a casino – because of the union.”
In 2018, the Culinary union negotiated terms of a collective bargaining agreement that includes protections from job displacement due to automation.
Under this agreement, MGM and other gaming companies must notify the union six months before new technology enters the workforce to allow employees to learn new skills for new positions should machines threaten their jobs.
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MGM officials contend they could not tell the USA Today Network how many automated systems are coming to Las Vegas properties – or how many jobs could be lost. They instead leaned against ongoing negotiations with the Culinary union.
“We worked closely with the union to make preparing for technology initiatives like these a key aspect of our 2018 agreement, and we take our obligations seriously,” Ahern, the company’s spokesman, said in a statement. “Our teams have met with union officials several times and discussions are ongoing to ensure compliance with last year’s contract.”
Culinary Union spokeswoman Bethany Khan said union workers will always have jobs.
“Jobs are never going to be eliminated,” Khan said. “There are endless opportunities for retraining. We see technology as assistive and supportive.”
Experts and thinkers studying the coming of the machines contend automation will not mark the end of the world. It will change the world as we know it.
Robots rising: ‘Neither apocalypse nor utopia’
In January, a Brookings Institution report declared a quarter of U.S. jobs will be severely disrupted as artificial intelligence accelerates the automation of existing work.
It would be easy to interpret the coming of the machines as a doomsday scenario, but the storyline now unfolding will likely be much more complex – and not entirely hopeless.
“[The] discourse appears to be arriving at a more complicated, mixed understanding that suggests that automation will bring neither apocalypse nor utopia,” reads the report’s executive summary, “but instead both benefits and stresses alike.”
The Washington think tank reported roughly 36 millions Americans hold jobs with “high exposure” to automation – meaning at least 70 percent of their tasks could be performed by machines using current technology.
In 2017, CityLab reported Las Vegas and the Riverside-San Bernardino area may be the most vulnerable to automation – “with 65 percent of jobs in Las Vegas and 63 percent of jobs in Riverside predicted to be automatable by 2025.”
Those most likely to be affected? Short-haul truck drivers, clerical office workers, cooks, waiters and others in food services.
“That population is going to need to upskill, reskill or change jobs fast,” Mark Muro, a senior Brookings fellow and lead author of the report, told the Associated Press.
It’s likely that automation will happen more swiftly during the next economic downturn. Businesses are typically eager to implement cost-cutting technology as they lay off workers.
Although the United States is in the middle of its second longest expansion in history, and jobs data suggest that the economy remains healthy, many business leaders and economists have suggested in surveys that the United States could slip into a recession in 2020.
Nevertheless, most jobs will change somewhat as machines take over routine tasks, according to Brookings, but a majority of U.S. workers will be able to adapt to that shift without being displaced.
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Human workers, machine sidekicks
In Las Vegas, the minds inside UNLV’s International Gaming Institute are focusing on moving the hospitality industry into the future – and automation is a part of it.
“The timeline is not short for technological adaptation,” said Rippee in the institute’s Hospitality Lab. “What you see today are experiments. You see companies experimenting with robotic bartenders or mixing devices to see how they would work in their environment. Does it affect their profitability? Does it affect their productivity? We’ve all been in a bar on a busy Friday night and it’s four deep and you wait for a drink.”
Now imagine four bartenders and four robots working behind the bar on that busy Friday night.
“And the robots are doing the simple things,” Rippee said. “What they do well are redundant tasks. That’s why you see them on the assembly line. They never make a mistake. They put the same door handle in flawlessly 24 hours a day, 365 days a year [and] never make a mistake. So you could imagine a robotic bartender that is doing simple things that allows the bartender to do more complex things – like making special drinks.”
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The future of hospitality is likely a landscape where humans and robots work together, Rippee said. A service industry absent humans is still in the realm of science fiction. Tourists value the kind of human personality, interaction and hospitality technology is incapable of providing.
“Whether it evolves to where we have C-3POs? Maybe,” Rippee said. “But the technology is certainly not there yet.”
And as for a potential rise of the malevolent machine?
“Over the course of a span of decades, it’s probably (a) justifiable fear, because technology is only going to get better and better and better and faster and less expensive, mass production scaled up,” Rippee said. “Thousands of them, rather than hundreds of them. That same period of time gives humans the chance to understand how they regulate them, how they control them – so you don’t get Terminators loose on the street.”
Follow Ed Komenda on Twitter: @ejkomenda
The Associated Press contributed to this report.