Those concerned that robots are taking over the world can rest easy – for now. Though the androids have proved useful at performing mundane tasks, they are not ready for prime time. At least that appears to be the case at Japan’s cutting-edge Henn-na Hotel chain where over half of the robot staff is being replaced by humans.
The first location of the aptly named Henn-na ("strange" in Japanese) Hotel opened with much fanfare at Nagasaki’s Huis Ten Bosch Theme Park in July 2015. The hotel’s owner, Hideo Sawada, envisioned the futuristic lodging to be managed primarily by intelligent robots with minimal human interaction. Guests were greeted and checked-in by either a family-friendly English-speaking dinosaur robot or a Japanese-speaking humanoid. Autonomous robot porters stood ready to help guests’ carry luggage to their rooms, while a cute doll-shaped android called Churi, placed inside each room, provided them with information about nearby attractions. Even the hotel’s garbage cans were robotic.
Not surprisingly, the lodging, recognized in 2016 as the world's first robot-staffed hotel by Guinness World Records, drew in curious visitors from all around the world. Spurred by the success, Sawada opened seven additional locations across Japan and announced plans to build at least 50 more.
But as the years have passed, the hotel’s main draw – its employees – are becoming less of a novelty and more of a nuisance. Also as the robots are “aging” they are costing more to repair and maintain. Earlier this month, the hotel chain’s parent company H.I.S. announced that it had decided to “fire” over half of the robot employees and replace them with humans.
Among the 283 androids being mothballed are the chain’s two velociraptor receptionists. In addition to scaring young guests, they are also unable to manually photocopy guests’ passports – a requirement when checking into a Japanese hotel – forcing humans employees to step in each time. Also out are the cute Churi robots, which have proved woefully inept at answering even the simplest questions and annoyed guests by interrupting their conversations. One guest told The Wall Street Journal that Churi mistook his snoring for a command and kept asking him to repeat his request all night. The robotic porters are getting replaced as well because of their inability to traverse slopes, limiting their usefulness to just a fraction of the hotel’s rooms.
While this is a setback, Tatsuya Fukuda, who oversees the development of the chain, is not deterred, stating, “We are trying to evolve and improve every day, but we have been working with state-of-the-art equipment.” The company’s officials, who plan to continue with their ambitious expansion plans, believe the human-robot interaction is a learning process. Sawada told the Wall Street Journal, "When you actually use robots you realize there are places where they aren't needed – or just annoy people.”
While Sawada may be cutting back on his use of androids, the recently-opened Smart LYZ Hotel and the Fly Zoo Hotel, both in China, have fully embraced them. Both lodgings are run entirely by robots, with not a human in sight. Whether the employees prove to be more efficient and hassle-free than those “hired” by the Henn-na Hotel chain remains to be seen.
Resources: Interestingengineering.com, Japantimes.co.jp, asia.nikkei.com, scmp.com