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Frankly ... Posthuman
Of Technology, Artificial Intelligence and Post-humanism

Robot on piano keyboard
Photo (detail): McPHOTO/M. Gann © picture alliance/ blickwinkel

Our author Eliphas Nyamogo remarks that nowadays a visit to a hotel can be eerie – what with deserted lobbies, electronic self-check-in terminals and brief encounters at the door.

By Eliphas Nyamogo

I rarely travel on Sunday but on this day I have no choice. So after a surprisingly enjoyable five-hour train journey from Munich to Bonn – comfortable seating, beautiful scenery, friendly on-board service crew and functioning WiFi to boot, I finally arrive at the Bonn Central Station. I proceed to a nearby automatic ticket vending machine and purchase a ticket for my short onward bus drive to the hotel I had booked online. I hop on to the bus and after exactly ten minutes I am standing at the entrance to my hotel. While still looking for a door-bell to press, the sliding door opens and I walk into a small lobby that has nothing but a telephone and a terminal that for all intents and purposes resembles a cash vending machine. I am glad because I actually need to withdraw some cash and now I don’t have to walk out of the hotel again to do that. I look around for the reception but there’s none. The next glass door that leads out of the lobby does not open even as I approach it. I peer through to see if there is anybody on the other side who can let me in: There is neither anything that is akin to a reception nor any sign of life across that glass. I turn and look at the terminal behind me and realize that it is meant for self-service check-in for all guests booked at the hotel. And it is clear that I have to use my credit card to complete the process.

No guests, no staff in sight

The instructions on the screen are fairly simple and the process is largely instinctive. After inserting my credit card and appending my signature on the touch-pad using a stylus attached to the machine, an electronic card, my hotel key, pops out and the machine welcomes me to the hotel, tells me my room number and wishes me a comfortable stay. I am delighted at the uncomplicated process but there’s an uncomfortable and eerie feeling in me. I am yet to see any person in the building. Even the street outside the hotel is empty! I pick my electronic card, place it against a little green light on the glass door that in my mind should lead to the hotel lobby. The door opens and all I see is an open elevator. I walk in backwards, trying to see if anyone is watching or following me. Nobody. The door closes and I hesitate before pressing the button for the floor on which my room is. I pinch my left arm lightly just to be sure I am not dreaming. “Which hotel has no guests, staff or reception?”, I ask myself. Before I can figure out an explanation, the elevator opens. I walk out and see the arrow pointing to where my room is. I walk to the door, looking around to see if there are any staff or guests. Nobody. I place my electronic key against the door-handle, turn the handle and enter my room.
I am now sure I am in the right place but the strange feeling won’t leave me. I want to turn on the TV and see if there are any updates on the ongoing elections for the EU parliament. I can see a small card next to the phone on my desk written “SMART Programm” and below it is a QR-code. The instructions below it say that I should use the code to get access to an electronic TV guide. I won’t do that just yet. I think I have had enough for a welcome! I hope that tomorrow morning there will be some guests and staff at the restaurant when I go for breakfast. It’s Sunday evening.
Exhausted from the journey and this novel but hair-raising experience, I lie down on my bed and soon fall asleep. Two hours later I wake up thirsty and hungry. It’s Sunday and in Germany kiosks, shops, malls and almost all restaurants, particularly those in residential areas like where my hotel is located, are closed. I don’t feel like walking down the street to the bus stage to go into the town for food. I look at my phone and on the screen are two unsolicited ads for food-delivery apps. One of them is quite tempting: The restaurant only serves vegetarian dishes, delivers anywhere within a radius of 10 kilometers and gives a discount of 15% on any order for first-time customers.

Mobile apps at my service

Still lying on my bed, I download the app, browse through the menu and place my order. It asks me whether I want to pay for my meal online using my credit card or whether I want to settle my bill when the order is delivered. I choose the latter for two reasons: I do not want to imagine how the food will get to my doorstep after my encounter with machines today and secondly, the second option sounds like there will be a somebody to receive my payment, and I would like to see and talk to a real person before I have my dinner and go to bed.
After thirty minutes my doorbell rings. I hesitantly get out of my bed, walk stealthily to the door and look through the peekhole. There’s a young man standing at the door carrying a meal-box and a PDQ-machine. I open confidently and ask him to come in but he politely declines, hands me my meal and the card-reader. I insert my card, key in my PIN, confirm and the deal is done. In less than a minute, I have my meal and the young man is rushing into the elevator, probably to make the next delivery. As I firmly shut the door behind me and walk back into my room I wonder how he got into the building up to my door, but I can’t ask him that question now.
So I have finally seen one person in my hotel, but he is neither a guest nor a member of staff. These are certainly exciting and equally unsettling times. I am here to attend an international media conference whose theme is “Shifting Powers”. I think I am ready now, come what may!