The Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner is one of the great small-company innovations, right up there with the Blackberry and anti-gravity boots. In a recent post on the New York Times blog Freakonomics, Justin Wolfers reflects on why Roombas, from the company iRobot, aren't used in hotels. He takes a few jabs at hotel hygiene (personally I've found almost all the hotels I've stayed in pleasantly tidy, although living with children may have dulled my sensitivity to squalor) and ultimately settles on time scarcity as the most likely culprit. In general, Roombas take longer than human beings to complete their tasks, although they are also more thorough.
I can think of a few more reasons Roombas haven't been adopted by the hospitality industry:
Cleaning staff might step on or trip over the devices while dusting bureaus and changing sheets, so the Roombas would have to be set in operation after they were gone, requiring staff to return and pick them up later. Fare thee well convenience.
If the maid accidentally left a Roomba in the middle of the floor a guest might trip over it. Hello lawsuit.
The potential for theft. What guest who peeks into an empty room and sees a slick metal soft-shell crab scuttling over the carpet won't be tempted to snatch it up and stuff it into his suitcase along with the thick terrycloth robe and 400-thread-count sheets?
I do think robots in hotels are a swell idea, however, and would like to suggest two applications that could have more impact on guests' experience than carpet cleaning.
First, I would vastly prefer to have my luggage carted up to my room by a robot than a human being. One could avoid the uncomfortable elevator conversation ("So, where are you folks from? Phoenix, huh? Well, that's nice. Good trip in? Well, that's nice.) Also the obligatory tour of the room. ("Here's your bathroom. Here's your coffee maker. Here's your thermostat. It turns the heat up and down.") Also, of course, the tip.
You could also avoid a tip if a robot delivered your room service. And of course you wouldn't have to get dressed again: the robot bearing your tray wouldn't notice that you answered the door in sweats and no underwear. Nor would it judge you for ordering shrimp cocktail, a banana split, and a bottle of Maker's Mark.
For some of us, hospitality and anonymity go hand and hand. A robot could deliver just the impersonal service we crave.