Ask Jeeves

Butlers don’t have to fear being replaced by robots any time soon.

Botlr, the robot butler, at the Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, California.

Courtesy of Savioke

In August, Silicon Valley’s Aloft Hotel welcomed its latest staff member: Botlr, a 3-foot-tall “robot butler” that ferries small objects from the front desk to guests’ rooms. Small, helpful, and reassuringly nonthreatening, it’s the sort of figure that the fledgling personal robotics industry hopes will cut a path through hotels, hospitals, nursing homes, and houses in the near future.

Using a robot to improve customer service may seem odd, but the Aloft chain caters to young, hip business travelers who associate high-tech with convenience, and this hotel (located almost in the shadow of Apple’s corporate headquarters) already lets guests use their smartphones as their room keys. And Botlr’s personality is hardly, well, robotic: Its painted white shirt and bow tie, its measured pace, and the high-pitched “beep boop” noises it makes when interacting with guests remind one equally of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wall-E’s Eve. It may be made of cold plastic, but it’s warm and fuzzy. 

But designing a smartphone app that replaces a key is one thing; designing a robot to do a butler’s job is another. Have we really gotten to the stage where robots are up to it? Sunnyvale, California, startup Savioke, whose SaviOne robot is Botlr minus the bow tie, is focused on making robots that can make deliveries, not serve as household servants. Still, the name made me wonder: Could a robot ever replace Jeeves?

I spoke to some (human) butlers about what they really do and got a more complicated picture of their working lives. I recently interviewed several butlers—they spoke on background, out of a desire to maintain their employers’ privacy—as well as Steven Ferry, who runs the International Institute of Modern Butlers. It turns out that carrying things with panache is important, but there are far more important tasks butlers need to carry off.

So what do butlers really do? Certainly they know the difference between silver and plated table service, the finer points of etiquette, and of course wine; during the Middle Ages, the first butlers were in charge of spicing or sweetening wine to make it palatable. (There’s a reason the phrase “medieval quality control” is more cringe- than confidence-inspiring.) But since the 19th century, the butler has been a chief operating officer. In smaller households he might do some manual work, but in larger homes his main responsibilities were to oversee the male staff, manage the budget, coordinate with the housekeeper and cook, and serve the family—as Downton Abbey fans well know.

Butlers understand themselves to be like stage managers or producers, doing all the hard, sometimes frantic behind-the-curtain work that’s necessary to put on a good show. Not only do you have to anticipate an employer’s moods and needs, adjust plans to accommodate the eccentricities or allergies or physical needs of guests, and improvise solutions to sudden problems, you need to be able to deal with caterers and cooks, vendors (“monumentally important,” Ferry says), repairmen, even customs agents and port authorities. And you have to do this in multiple locations. “If you’re well-off enough to employ a butler,” one told me, “you’re probably fortunate enough to need his services in several places.” (Everyone I interviewed glided around the word rich.)

Butlers aren’t likely to tweet “I am serving a sandwich,” not only because discretion is a critical part of the job but because as one California-based butler told me, “You cannot serve well if you do not observe well.” Being responsive yet unobtrusive requires a Zen-like attentiveness, a sensitivity to mood and psychology, a capacity to improvise, and the confidence to “serve without being servile,” as several put it. As Ferry told me, “When we train butlers, we tell them you cannot be someone who follows a specific formula. Every situation is going to be different.” In other words, Ferry tells students, “You cannot be a robot.”

So Botlr isn’t a robot butler; at best it’s an automated version of a cardboard cutout of a butler. But the very fact that their work is supposed to be invisible makes it easy to underestimate butlers and other staff, and to mistake work that only looks easy for work that really is simple. All too often we assume that work can be automated or “disrupted” because it’s simple, even slightly contemptible—that, as factory manager Harry Domin declares in Karel Capek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (which introduced the word robot to the English language), “Work humiliates, anyone who’s forced to do it is made small.” Automated phone trees are great for routine things but quickly fail when confronted by customers’ real questions. The supermarket self-checkout turns the simple act of bagging groceries into an activity both high-tech and Kafkaesque. It looks simple. Yet entering the wrong produce code, not putting something in the bagging area quickly enough, putting it in too quickly, taking something out of the bag, moving things around in the bag, even brushing against the bagging area, triggers a call for a supervisor. (And if you think bagging groceries needs dexterity, imagine laying out china and serving dinner. High-touch service—indeed, the sense of touch itself—is far beyond the abilities of today’s high tech.) Automation works in predictable environments like assembly lines, where robots can do one job, in exactly the same way, over and over. But even simple tasks can require skill and judgment when done in the amiable chaos of everyday life. 

Butlers turn out to do lots of hard, hidden work in order to create an atmosphere that is “unhurried, untroubled, and not informal, but full of ease,” as one put it. The irony is, that’s actually a great description of the kind of future that advocates of pervasive computing dream of: a world where invisible agents smooth our way, acting reliably on our behalf, without our constant supervision. (In “The Indomitable British Butler,” Ferry writes, “Employees who act as if they are robots can be exhausting to have around.”) Robot butlers that automate a parody of butling won’t get us there. If engineers were to pay more attention to what butlers actually do, they could create better technology, and we’d all have better lives, not just faster deliveries.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.