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Artificial Intelligence: Sacrificing the Personal Touch?

AI lets casinos microtarget customers based on data for a more “personalized” experience. But what about hospitality founded on real relationships, among real people?

Artificial Intelligence: Sacrificing the Personal Touch?

Last May, on a lurid scarlet-drenched cover, Time magazine asked the question: Will artificial intelligence mean “the end of humanity?”

Critics pounced on the alarmist headline, calling it “fake news” and “fear-mongering.” But the concerns are real and widespread. Devotees and detractors alike say AI will revolutionize most industries, eliminate some, and unalterably change the way we live and work—for better and worse.

AI is already changing casino hospitality, with robot bartenders, self-serve kiosks and AI-generated chatbots. Could they undermine the one-to-one interactions at the heart of the customer relationship?

‘A Tool, Not a Takeover’

Fans of AI liken it to other tools that initially met with skepticism, then became integral parts of daily life, from cars and telephones to PCs and smartphones.

None of those inventions, however, arouse the existential dread that surrounds AI. In 2014, physicist Stephen Hawking said advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race;” at the same time, SpaceX and Tesla boss Elon Musk, who now owns X, said humans were “summoning the demon” with the development of superintelligent computers.

More recently, a 2023 Monmouth University poll found that just 9 percent of Americans think AI will do more good than harm in society.

John Acres, founder of Acres Technology and inventor of the first player-tracking systems for casinos, is unconcerned. “We’ve all seen too many science fiction movies with robots taking over the universe. AI is neither good nor bad, and the people out there rattling their swords, saying, ‘Oh, this is dangerous,’ are probably trying to put the brakes on their competitors.”

In the casino environment, Acres says, personal service remains essential, particularly for high-value guests. “There’s nothing like a great hostess who knows everything I want. But when that person’s off for the night, AI tools can answer low-level questions, like how to get a room, and process those requests.” For guests whose spend doesn’t warrant a personal host, AI can provide handy virtual assistance.

It also can recognize the nuances of player value. “Right now casinos rate players in tiers—bronze, silver, gold—while a person at the silver level could be barely above bronze or almost gold,” Acres says. “We’re treating them the same, but AI can say, ‘Well, wait a minute. John is almost a gold player. It’s probably worth giving him an extra incentive to overcome a few losses.’”

He adds that AI is nothing without data—“lots and lots of accurate data” that enables it to identify patterns of guest behavior, determine how to use it, and also improve the customer experience.

“Our systems are old,” says Acres. “Some have been running the same player-tracking system for 20, 30 years, that may report only sporadically and partially what’s happening. If we try to use the AI tools on that, we’re going to be far less successful than if we got a richer set of data to analyze to begin with.”

In Acres’ view, AI is “a tool, not a takeover. And like any tool, you can use it improperly or properly”—like the lawyer who used ChatGPT to write motions filled with case law that, in fact, did not exist, and Google’s image generator, Gemini, that produced images of racially diverse military officers in Nazi uniforms.

Mind Games

Those gaffes dispel the notion that artificial intelligence is intelligent at all, much less sentient, self-governing or simple to use.

“There’s a misconception about AI that you turn it on and it starts spitting out the secrets of the universe,” says Jon Wolfe, president of global systems and services at Light & Wonder. “That’s not how it is. You have to iterate and craft and shape models around a business problem you want to solve or objective you’re trying to achieve.”

For one model, Wolfe says, “we did 2,000 iterations before we got it right.”

With sufficient accurate data sets, AI can evaluate and predict customer behaviors with precision—for example, detecting a slot player’s mood in real time, and responding to shifting attitudes on a spin-by-spin basis.

“Say someone isn’t having the best luck on a machine and is close to pulling their card,” says Wolfe. “We can predict that breakpoint with a high level of accuracy,” and counter with a reward that may keep that person engaged. (Problem gambling activists suggest that such technologies should also remind players to take a break as needed.)

Similarly, L&W’s Engage loyalty platform, working with a booking engine, uses guest frequency and projected revenue to ensure “the right room at the right rate on the right day. It collects data from every single system we’re connected to: hotel, point of sale, ecommerce, iGaming, sports betting, so we know a tremendous amount about the player,” and can also cross-sell across those verticals.

When it comes to security, AI also is a potentially valuable partner, he notes. “There’s all kinds of nefarious activity going on at the casino, because there’s so much cash there. AI has a great shot at saying, ‘This looks suspicious. I’m going to have a person look at it.’”

In this partnership, AI sounds the alarm, a human worker follows up, and hopefully the bad guy is thwarted. “It’s like a 24/7 auditor looking at every single transaction,” says Wolfe. “We finally have a system that can collect all the data and report it within one second of the time of play. I’m not sure we’d get to the nuanced effort we need without that science.”

Wolfe says AI won’t change customer service, just the mode of delivery. “It’s still about knowing your customer, but sourcing them in a different way.”

AI remains a tool for people, not the other way around, he adds. “You still need a human driving the keyboard. This is not a self-driving car.” As for concerns about job losses: “This is about increasing horsepower, not displacing talent.”

Fighting Back

Even so, research firm McKinsey & Co. estimates that 70 percent of hotel and food service workers could see more than half their work absorbed by automation and artificial intelligence, and 20 percent of marketing jobs could be lost to AI.

A separate study says the technology could displace 400 million workers worldwide (while also creating almost 100 million new jobs).

So last October, when 3,700 union casino workers in Detroit went on strike, they not only demanded better wages and better health care, but greater protections against technologies that affect their jobs.

Cocktail server Ambre Romero, then working for $13 an hour, told the New York Times that malfunctioning “labor-saving devices,” like automated cocktail dispensers, took her away from customers and caused her tips to drop by 30 percent.

In contract negotiations, employees of the Greektown and MGM casinos asked for at least six months’ notice before new workplace technologies were introduced, better training to iron out the glitches, and severance packages for workers replaced by tech. (New contracts, ratified in December, included an average 18 percent pay raise, bonuses—and yes, the technology protections workers asked for.)

Meanwhile, a quarter of U.S. companies are adopting AI because they can’t fill their vacancies. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that “fully in-person” jobs with lower wage levels, like those in leisure and hospitality, have “the highest quit rates of all industries,” a trend that preceded Covid-19, and grew during and after the pandemic.

Earle Hall, CEO of fintech company, says he would be “appalled to walk into a casino and see robots all over the place.” Even so, he believes that AI can take over the drudge jobs people hate, allowing them to pursue more creative endeavors.

“When you put human beings into repetitive tasks, you turn off the entire right side of their brain—their creativity, their inspiration, their passion,” says Hall. “Please don’t tell me humanity was created to do that.”

AI can step in, performing routine tasks 24/7, optimally with more accuracy. In the marketing space, it can bank and analyze internal data and data from external sources, like social media platforms, then “correlate things that we would not normally correlate”—all without the bias that comes with being human.

“AI can say, ‘You shouldn’t market to this segment, but this one,’” says Hall, “or, ‘These messages you’re sending out aren’t working, but these ones should.’ You have a virtual assistant with the intelligence of 10 and the opinion of none. The database and algorithms take care of the boring stuff, and the human is freed up the take care of the other humans.”

He says any company that doesn’t use AI for marketing “is setting itself up to be extinct in three to five years.”

To Serve Man

In 1987, an IBM computer called Deep Blue became famous for defeating chess grandmaster Garry

Kasparov in a tense match in New York City. It was called the first such victory of machine over man, but Deep Blue was a dinosaur compared to AI.

Fast forward a quarter of a century, to 2022, and a chess-playing robot competing in Russia broke the finger of his human opponent, a seven-year-old boy, after the child made a move too quickly.

“The boy hurried, the robot grabbed him,” said Moscow Chess Open President Sergey Lazarev. “This is, of course, bad.”

Yes, it is. All reservations aside, in 2023 governments and businesses were expected to invest more than $500 billion on AI technologies, according to global research firm IDC. They’re also looking to regulate the controversial tools.’s Hall says AI should be “more regulated than nuclear energy.

“Nuclear material is hyper-controlled in the hands of the few, whereas artificial intelligence is sitting in everybody’s left or right hand—on their phone.

“We’re on a planet where we worked hard for a couple of million years to have humans, so it’d be

really cool if we stayed on the menu.” Right now, Canada, Australia, India and the European Union are at the forefront of AI regulation, he says.

Speaking of menus—and scary science fiction—in a classic episode of The Twilight Zone, an alien race called the Kanamits come to Earth, promising to end all wars and turn our planet into a paradise. At first, humans are wary, but the aliens seem benevolent, and their good intentions are reflected in the title of a handbook in their language, To Serve Man.

As a cryptographer works to decode the handbook, hundreds of earthlings accept the Kanamits’ invitation to visit their own world. The happy interstellar travelers are about to board the spaceship when the cryptographer arrives, trying to stop them.

She has translated To Serve Man, only to discover that it’s a cookbook.

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