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Robots are pouring drinks in Vegas. As AI grows, the city's workers brace for change

This bar inside Planet Hollywood on the Las Vegas strip has two robots that serve customers drinks. The Tipsy Robot opened a second location on the strip this year.
Deepa Shivaram
/
NPR
This bar inside Planet Hollywood on the Las Vegas strip has two robots that serve customers drinks. The Tipsy Robot opened a second location on the strip this year.

Walk any direction in Las Vegas and it's easy to find machines doing human work.

Check-in kiosks have replaced people at the front desk of hotels. Text-bots now make restaurant recommendations instead of a concierge. Robots can serve food, and behind the bar, machines are pouring out drinks.

Automation and technology replacing jobs has long been a conversation in Nevada's most populated city. Studies show that between 38% to 65% of jobs there could be automated by 2035.

With the use of artificial intelligence on the rise, the economy of this city --which relies on tourism and hospitality — is at an inflection point, as companies look to technology to reduce labor costs.

"Wherever the resort industry can replace their workers and not affect productivity, profits or the customer experience — wherever they can do that with artificial intelligence... they will," said John Restrepo, principal at RCG Economics in Las Vegas.

"The question is, how do you factor in and how do you adapt your economic development strategy, your community strategy, your resiliency strategy to accommodate a world where certain jobs no longer exist?" he said.

Restrepo said he believes the city has to diversify its economy to be less reliant on tourism and hospitality.

"We need to move ... to those occupations that are more highly skilled, that are not easily replaced by AI and that provide a greater level of balance and resilience so we're not so hard-hit," Restrepo said.

Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Ted Pappageorge speaks during a rally along the Las Vegas Strip in August. Pappageorge said the union is ready to strike over AI if necessary.
John Locher / AP
/
AP
Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Ted Pappageorge speaks during a rally along the Las Vegas Strip in August. Pappageorge said the union is ready to strike over AI if necessary.

The Culinary Union is prepared to strike over AI

Unions in Las Vegas are closely watching the changes. The largest union in Nevada, the Culinary Union, represents 60,000 service and hospitality workers in Las Vegas and Reno. Later this year, it hopes to have a new negotiated contract that includes protections against AI replacing jobs.

"We had a huge fight about tech in our previous contract. We're going to have the same fight this time around," Ted Pappageorge, the secretary-treasurer of the union, told NPR.

In its last contract in 2018, the union pushed for companies to agree to a six-month warning for workers for new technology introduced in the workplace, as well as free training on how to use the new technology.

"How do our folks make sure that the jobs that remain, that we can work them? And that we're not thrown out like an old shoe? We're not going to stand for that," Pappageorge said.

While the precise impact of AI on service work is not yet clear, the union is prepared to make AI an issue to strike over when it negotiates its new contract, Pappageorge said.

"We'd like to say we're going to be able to get an agreement. But if we have to, we're going to have a big fight and do whatever it takes, including a strike on technology," he said.

AI and machines can't replace the human touch, some workers say

Sabrina Bergman works at the Tipsy Robot, a bar inside Planet Hollywood on the Las Vegas strip. Her job is to help the robot do its job, tending bar. When the robot accidentally tips over a cup, she resets it. If the robot doesn't pour a full drink, she tops it off.

Bergman said she's not worried about the machine replacing her entirely — even though the bar just opened a second location earlier this year.

Bergman and other service workers told NPR there are some human jobs that technology can't eliminate. Machines don't have the same human touch and cannot provide the same experience, they said — and often times, the machines add more work.

"We have a lot of guests that are regular guests, and they come for the personal interaction. They don't come for the technology," said Holly Lang, a cocktail waitress at the MGM Grand. "There's some things you can't replace."

Lang said she's confident the Culinary Union will establish good protections. "A lot of people are concerned that it'll take our jobs but we have more comfort in the fact that we have contracts to protect us ... we've fought hard to keep our jobs for a long time," Lang said.

It's not just service workers who will be affected

Artificial intelligence won't just impact lower-wage jobs. Technology like ChatGPT, which is a form of generative AI, will impact white collar jobs, too, in fields like accounting and data entry.

In some cases, AI will help make workers more productive, while other roles might be eliminated entirely. AI is also likely to create brand new jobs that don't even exist yet.

Las Vegas city officials are starting to brace workers for that shift now. In August, the local Chamber of Commerce hosted a panel on using AI. A few dozen people attended, including Tony Yee, who owns a small moving company in the city.

He said he wants to learn how to use AI to build his company, and use the technology to help him with tasks like dealing with customer evaluations.

"I am really intrigued with AI and I know it's the next frontier. It's just like how people didn't believe in the internet in the '90s," Yee said.

"This is the next revolution, and if you're not on board, you're going to be left behind. And I don't want to be left behind."

Audio story produced by Lexie Schapitl

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.