Booking a vacation at this new “art and science” hotel will make you a hero to your kids. But at what cost?

the Albert interior

The first thing you notice about the hospitality robots at Hotel EMC2 — a new “art and science” boutique hotel in downtown Chicago, part of the Marriott Autograph Collection — is that they look like R2D2, if the Star Wars character had given up a career in space exploration and defending the galaxy from evil to stay in the Midwest and deliver toothbrushes to tourists.

The robots are the main reason I took my family for an overnight staycation at EMC2 — we live in Chicago, so it was a short Lyft ride away. My 7-year-old son, Charlie, is obsessed with science. He has a laboratory in our garage, where he invents things with baking supplies and slime. His Halloween costume last year was Zombie Einstein. He sleeps in a lab coat. When I asked if he wanted to spend the night in a hotel named after Einstein’s theory of relativity where robots bring stuff to his room, he immediately went to our car and refused to leave until we took him directly to it.

We make reservations for a Saturday night, and to my wife and me it feels like we’re getting away with something. I wouldn’t normally be able to say to Charlie, “Hey, you wanna spend a weekend at that fancy Marriott hotel downtown so Daddy can drink too many $20 cocktails and then we’ll get room service and stay in bathrobes all night?” That’s not his idea of fun. But add “and there’ll be robots” to the equation and all of a sudden you’re a hero for suggesting it.

Even before we set eyes on any robots, the hotel is a delight. The lobby features a 19th century zoetrope machine with a hand crank. The elevators are color-coded — R,G, and B, the three primary colors of the spectrum, perfect for the science nerd in your family who can’t wait to point it out — and the hallway art is digital, so paintings are created in real time. Each room number is hidden behind a backlit magnifying glass, and the rooms (purportedly inspired by 1920s laboratories) come equipped with test tube nightlights, a funky glass-enclosed shower that looks like a Star Trek Transporter, and a metallic horn amplifier that turns your smartphone into a gramophone.

But back to the robots. That’s why we’re here, for the robots.

The two on-call robots — available 24-7, we’re told — are named Leo and Theo. (We’re not sure why, but the reasons become part of an intense family discussion. Leo, we reason, is likely named for Leonardo da Vinci. But who’s Theo? Maybe the Dutch artist Theo Jansen who designed those creepy Strandbeest things? It results in an especially geeky family debate.) We barely get into our room before Charlie announces that testing the limits of EMC2’s robot staff is his reason for being, his raison d’être. He wants to start big, asking the robots to bring him a cake and a puppy, or a cake with a puppy baked into it. We have one of those cliche father-son talks, where you have to explain to your kid why you shouldn’t overwhelm a robot with demands too soon because then they’ll rise up against you. (We’ve all been there.) He agrees, and we text the “special robot number” provided by the front desk and ask for a nail file.

Within minutes, there’s a ring at our front door, and Charlie leaps off the bed, shouting, “The robots are here, the robots are here” like some futuristic Paul Revere. Behind the door is Leo, a three-foot-tall silver robot that resembles a fancy vacuum cleaner; one that beeps and boops and knows how to operate an elevator. Its head plate opens to reveal the nail file, and a screen prompts us to “please remove your items.” Charlie grabs it, hugs the robot — not my first impulse, but okay — and starts taping at Leo’s keyboard like he’s done this many times before.


“Wait, Charlie, do you know what you’re doing?” I ask.

“I got this, Dad,” he assures me.

Leo is satisfied with whatever Charlie types and rolls away, back down the hallway and towards the elevator. Charlie charges back into the room, grabs my phone and immediately makes another robot request.

We aren’t given a lot of perimeters with the robots. The front desk informs us that Leo and Theo can’t bring booze to our room, but are otherwise vague about what requests are off limits. Listen, when you’ve essentially given a kid a robot butler, one thing you can’t be is vague. Within our first hour in the room, Charlie sends robot requests for a birthday cake (he settles for cupcakes), balloons (delivered), potions (Cleo sends body lotion, which is close), something chocolatey (we dine on macaroon and chocolate truffles), bacon (we get a free voucher for the breakfast buffet), and “a toy, your choice, surprise me” (he’s sent a bonus DO NOT DISTURB sign and some headphones).

One night at Hotel EMC2 proves just how ready and also not at all ready I am for a robot service future. It’s amazing how quickly you can get used to having robots at your disposal. I go almost instantly from “this is so bizarre and unusual” to “I don’t want to get off the bed, can you just call the robot and have him do it?” But at the same time, I’m uneasy living amongst robots. I know how to interact with hotel staff who are also human beings. I’m good at innocuous small talk and knowing when to slip dollars into employee’s palms. But with robots, I feel out of my element. At one point during our stay, I ride an elevator with Theo. It’s just me and him — I think it’s a him. Do robots have genders? It’s a male first name, so I just assume — and I feel weirdly uncomfortable. I pretend to look at nonexistent messages on my phone, and then I smile at the robot and say, “Bet you’re happy the weekend is almost over, huh?” That’s right, I made awkward and unnecessary elevator conversation with a robot. (He does not, for the record, respond.)

We have dinner in the downstairs restaurant — called The Albert just in case you somehow missed the hotel’s Einstein theme — and manage to have a mutually enjoyable experience. My wife and I enjoy the trout and ribeye and overpriced cocktails, and Charlie studies the shelves filled with 12,000 leather-bound books — he’s particularly intrigued by the Cyclopaedia of the Diseases of Children — and the endless locked drawers with labels like “Matter,” “Antimatter,” “Plasma” and “Fermi liquid.” The lack of robots at dinner is disappointing, but there are enough beakers filled with ominous-looking liquids behind the bar to keep him captivated.

The evening ends — and this almost never happens in our family — exactly as everybody wants. My wife and I are in bathrobes by 6pm, drinking brown liquors and admiring the Chicago skyline. Charlie keeps himself entertained explaining to me how to operate the light fixtures (everything is controlled through the goddamn TV, apparently), conducting sound experiments on the horn amplifier, somehow stumbling upon a hotel commercial featuring Frida Kahlo and Albert Einstein naked in bed (which I guess is supposed to be a parody of the Kanye West “Famous” video but with smart people) and texting robots long past his bedtime. The fact that the EMC2 manager didn’t once respond with “Go home, room 1702, you’re drunk” is a testament to their professionalism.

During Charlie’s final hotel robot encounter, he somehow stumbles onto back-channel access. When I find him, Theo’s face screen is requesting his four-digit employee code, and Charlie is stabbing at the keyboard, trying to guess the right numbers.

“You are not hacking this robot,” I bark at him, grabbing Charlie’s arm and pulling him back into the room.

“I just want one robot,” he shouts at me. “Why won’t you let me have just one robot?!”


So that’s what we have to look forward to. It used to be that kids were impressed when a hotel has a pool and a free buffet. But we’re heading to a future where if there aren’t robot slaves willing to bring them toys and cake and possibly become their BFFs, Lost in Space style, there’ll be no pleasing them.

Ball’s in your court, Hampton Inn.

Hotel EMC2, Autograph Collection, is located at 228 E Ontario Street in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood, near the Magnificent Mile. Reservations can be made by calling (312) 915-0000 or via their website.

[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the August/September 2018 issue of The National.]