Hospitality is labor-intensive. It takes many hands to create the Las Vegas experience, from housekeeping to meal service. But perhaps that human touch won’t be needed at all someday. Two recent developments in autonomous technology and artificial intelligence will have profound meaning for Las Vegas hospitality.
First, French company Navya debuted a driverless shuttle bus called the Arma that, for 10 days, carried passengers down Fremont Street, from Las Vegas Boulevard to Eighth Street. The test run, by all accounts, was a success.
Traveling three blocks at an average speed of 12 miles per hour might not seem that impressive—a determined skateboarder can beat that—but the first demonstration of technology is rarely earth-shattering. Even more to the point, humans have been steering vehicles for more than a century, and there is no shortage of people who need a job. But the potential that this trial showed—autonomous vehicles delivering passengers safely and without sick days, union grievances or health benefits—should make us all think. The second that this becomes cost-effective, expect to see it everywhere.
Will the world be a better place when there are no bus drivers? Probably not for the bus drivers, and maybe not for the rest of us. Sure, you might get a surly driver one night, but you might also get a smile on a day when you need one. Or you might be the one giving that smile, making someone’s existence that much more bearable. No long hauling, but no humor or human kindness, either.
The second development, though, is the real potential downer. Research teams at two separate schools—Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Alberta, Edmonton—announced that they have developed software capable of beating human opponents at Texas Hold’Em.
Science fact, it seems, has left science fiction in the dust. In one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lieutenant Commander Data, an android with a positronic brain, was shocked by Commander Will Riker’s bluffing in their poker game. That might be bad writing—after all, Data had supposedly read everything ever written about poker, and bluffing is central to even the most basic poker strategies, so it’s not really possible that he would have been so surprised. But the idea—that artificial intelligence couldn’t possibly master the subtleties of poker—rang true.
Now, it looks like computers have surpassed humans in playing poker. Our gut instincts, our ability to read other players, everything we think it means to be human—well, it turns out computers can do it better. If we can be replaced at the poker table, there are few places left to us.
Which leads to the question: Where do people belong in this brave new world of artificial intelligence and automation? Presumably we’re paying for it, and being processed through it. But if our jobs—from driving buses to playing poker—are already taken, what exactly are we doing with our time? Vacationing, perhaps?
Our gut instincts, our ability to read other players, everything we think it means to be human—well, it turns out computers can do it better.
Maybe not. With resort fees, parking costs and rising room rates, visitors might want to invest in some automation of their own. Instead of paying through the nose for the privilege of being greeted by a parking gate or check-in kiosk, they might rent, from the comfort of their home, an autonomous drone that can see all the sites, documenting all the fun they are having in Las Vegas. Advances in virtual reality will make this experience the equal to anything our limited eyes can appreciate in person, with everything available for instant rewind and replay.
These visitors will, as far as anyone else knows, really be there; they can digitally insert themselves into selfies taken by their drones and post them on their social media feeds, flaunting just how great a time they are having in Las Vegas to an envious world. That might be the natural progression here. We don’t need the driver to get from point A to point B, since machines can do it more efficiently; why not just cut out another middleman and have another drone snap selfies for you? If a machine can have the Vegas experience for you more efficiently, more cheaply and with less inconvenience, isn’t it logical to leave the Boulevard to the drones? On the plus side, we won’t have to worry about paying for mass transit.
If that seems dystopian, well, it should. We have much to gain by embracing technology, but also much to lose. As a town that sells, essentially, experiences, Las Vegas may be a test case for just how far humans can—and should—be removed from the equation.
David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.