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Checking out the front desk of the future

Andy Morris
01 October 2016

Androids and automatons are popping up in hotels from Nagasaki to Ghent. Are they the logical next step or a dystopian future for travellers, devoid of human contact? Andy Morris investigates the rise of the hotelier robots

Isaac Asimov’s definitive 1942 laws of robotics are curiously silent on the delivery of a club sandwich to your hotel room at 3am. Yet hoteliers around the world are convinced that the so-called ‘inevitable robot uprising’ needs to be embraced – a mechanised workforce now seems to be a very real possibility.

Thanks to increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence and the decreasing cost of components, robots will be interacting with travellers more than ever. A disembodied crane arm can securely place your luggage in storage. A self-driving porter can trundle your suitcase to your room. Room service robots (‘Botlrs’) can deliver forgotten smartphone chargers, red-eye coffee or fresh towels – all without a tip. Automated lawnmowers and hoovers can perform maintenance for 24 hours without complaint. For those looking for something more interactive, in-room robot companions can control lights, temperature, forecast weather and, where appropriate, make awkward small talk.

The traveller’s initial reaction to these new mechanised helpers is vital. This is exemplified by the Henn na (meaning ‘strange’ or ‘evolve’) hotel in Japan, found within a 380-acre theme park in Nagasaki. Opened in July 2015 by the Kawazoe Lab, the Institute of Industrial Science, the University of Tokyo and architect firm Kajima, the hotel has a number of impressive features, including facial recognition software, cutting-edge air conditioning, fried octopus vending machines and daily drone flying lessons. But the biggest impact comes when you first check in: the front desk is staffed by a full-size female ‘actroid’ called Yumeko and two Velociraptors, Mirai and Kibo, who both bear their talons, wear bellhops’ caps and exclaim: ‘Thank you for your visitors’ [sic]. They each speak four languages – Japanese, English, Mandarin and Korean – and have yet to eat a single guest.

What the multilingual dinosaurs have in their favour is that most queries are so predictable that one can programme automatic answers. Anyone who has spent time in a hotel lobby quickly learns that most breakfasts will be taken between 7-8.30am, guests need to know the Wi-Fi code and that the name of the in-room movie won’t show up on their bill.

But, bar the novelty of chatting with a Jurassic Park escapee, what a robot check-in offers is complete anonymity. For those who are constantly moving from city to city, sometimes the inane pleasantries of business become too much. The upside of being checked in by a previously extinct creature? It doesn’t care how your day is going so far, whether you’re here on business or pleasure or who you’re sharing your room with. As long as your credit card is secure, the Henn na hotel is as off the books as a stay in Tokyo’s lascivious love hotels.

As with all new technology, however, there have been teething problems. When the Henn na opened last year, what it lacked quickly became apparent. It seemed daring to make the first robot hotel a deliberately budget but advanced technology environment. A year on, the hotel is surprisingly no-frills. You have to pay extra if you want your bed made. There’s no laundry service. You can’t check in early or check out late. Neither Henn na staff or robots can deliver room service, move your bags between hotels, reserve a bike, give you a room with a view or even call you a cab.

The other problem is that the robots have a limited number of phrases, making check-in one step away from the dreaded ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’. Certain queries require human intervention – one early visitor found a request for a second room key was beyond the automated hotelier. Apparently this is deliberate: Henn na’s owner, Hideo Sawada, wants to cut down waiting times and complaints by making it more difficult for guests to address staff directly. The critical reception was understandably mixed. Wired’s Gideon Lewis-Kraus came away nonplussed and Motherboard’s Ben Ferguson found guests describing the experience as ‘lonely’ and, most worrying, ‘a bit boring’.

As such, Henn na has recently added a new attraction on-site. This summer it launched its ‘Kingdom of Robot’. The centrepiece is a restaurant, themed as though it was operating in 2216. As such, it features cartoony robot waiters, automated chefs preparing okonomiyaki and the cheery ‘Yasakawa’, a mechanical maker of great chocolate ice cream. The Kingdom of Robot is both a museum and a showcase of more than 100 devices, including Premaid AI, a robot modelled on J-pop stars and designed to dance on a table top. Perhaps most excitingly, there’s also the Battle King ride – a cross between dodgems that can’t collide, the laser-shooting game, Quasar, and Guillermo del Toro’s film Pacific Rim.

Kingdom of Robot could bring crowds of guests to the hotel, but what it definitely won’t bring is more jobs to Henn na. When the hotel opened with 72 rooms, it had ten staff. It now has double the number of rooms, but only employs nine humans, and is hoping to reduce that figure to six by the end of the year. As Sawada has carefully explained: ‘I think if humans are working on creative and artistic work, they won’t lose their jobs.’

It’s a question the hotel industry cares deeply about: are robots a threat for human careers? Take Mario, the youngest staff member at the Ghent Marriott Hotel in Belgium. He’s just over 22 inches tall, weighs 6kg (less than one stone), speaks 19 languages and was presented at this year’s ITB Convention, the leading travel industry think tank. His two creators at the Belgian firm Zora Robotics were asked about the possible job conflict. Fabrice Goffin pointed out that creating Mario necessitated 34 new jobs for their company, seemingly ignoring the obvious factors of how automation works within the wider world. A robot could potentially attempt a number of roles currently performed by humans – but are they up to the task?

Mario certainly has potential – he’s cute and blessed with facial recognition. There’s a time lapse before he responds to queries and flaps his arms convincingly, making him the ideal Eurovision host. He has also dealt with autistic children in schools and pensioners in hospitals. He’s a fun addition to any lobby, which is why we’re already seeing Mario variants around the world (his robo-brethren include ‘Connie’ in Virginia and ‘Hugo’ in Amsterdam). Mario seems to have become something of a celeb, entertaining school parties and conducting an ill-advised photo opportunity where he is seen tucking into a pint of Stella Artois.

When you break down what Mario can do, however, a little of the magic wears off. His creators have compared him to R2-D2, Luke Skywalker’s faithful droid. But while R2-D2 managed to repair a hyperdrive, override a city’s security system and fly an interplanetary craft, Mario can’t even run the buffet. He can indicate what dishes are available – ‘This is the pasta, this is the soup’ – but he can’t serve them and he won’t be manning the omelette station any time soon. To entertain younger guests, Mario can also be programmed to perform. His declaration, ‘Dancing is fun. Which dance would you like to see?’ is somewhere between Tickle Me Elmo’s cuteness and Alan Partridge’s desperate lap dance in order to get a new series.

According to Mario’s creators the two most frequent questions they receive are ‘Can he iron?’ (no – you’d be better off with a Foldimate robot) and ‘Can he be silent?’ This is more significant than you might think. Robots can be needy if not programmed otherwise. Take Churi-chan, the personal lamp-size robot. Rather than simply flicking a switch, you have to give it a voice command. The robot then announces ‘Turning off the light’, followed by, ‘I have turned off the light’. In some ways, it’s like having an attention-seeking toddler, constantly wanting approval and affirmation.

One wonders what might happen when Zaro Robotics can place its software in more elaborate forms than Mario. Consider the possibilities: a Disney hotel where you could check in with a robotic version of Dory or leave your key card with Frozen’s Olaf.

What’s also interesting is whether a robot’s memory can be used to make a more personal experience – a hotel that knows your pillow preferences and cocktail choices because of data accumulated during your stay. Imagine placing a robot with the memory of a Ritz concierge in a budget hotel. Appetite will grow as we become increasingly used to speaking to robots, outside of automated voice mailboxes. Is speaking to Churi-chan or Mario any different from asking Siri a question or giving a voice command to Amazon’s Echo to play some music? For this writer, however, no robot can possibly replace great human service. The best hotel staff convince you that, despite you being their 29th check in of the day, they are delighted and grateful for your custom. The best experiences from hotel staff stay with you for years afterwards. For me, they recall childhood memories of toys arranged amusingly each night by the tireless Orlando Marriott team. The two nights I spent at Claridge’s where the staff were as fine as the china. How the owner of the Duck’s Inn in Edinburgh decided that, thanks to the absence of cabs and trains, he would personally drive me to a reception at which I met my future wife. Given all variants – whether it’s illness, weather, so-called ‘human error’ – a set of automated responses will never replace true care. Apparently Sawada wants to open a hotel in the UK, complete with Actroids with different accents and ‘the capacity to wink’. I fear a future where an android might flutter her metallic eyelashes and direct me to the lifts in a broad Yorkshire tone. Aye, robot? 

Follow Andy on Twitter @iamandymorris