The robot will check you in, take your bags, and escort you to your room in a new Japanese hotel that hopes to free itself of human employees.
The Henn-na Hotel, set in the middle of a theme park in Nagasaki, Japan, will become the first robot-staffed hotel when it opens this summer. These metal-and-silicone employees will speak and understand Chinese, Japanese, Korean and English, ensuring that tourists near and far can interact with the startlingly human-like maids, receptionists, and porters. They look human, if a little addicted to Botox and fillers.
The plans, announced by the Japanese government at the end of January, show off a prototype check-in counter lined with identical female bots.
They will be built by a Japanese robotics company called Kokoro, so-named for a famous book about the transition of society from traditional to modern. This particular model—the Actroid—has been in development since 2003.
Three different versions are previewed on the company’s website, all with dark brown hair and subtle Japanese features. One is described thusly: “Her most attractive feature is her long legs and her bright smile. Her astonishingly small face is capable of creating exotic facial expressions. Her girlish and cute gestures are also polished.”
An autonomous model of Kokoro’s Actroid previewed at the Human Robot Interaction Conference in Tokyo in 2013.
At that time she was already outfitted with 18 gestures and trained to deal with large groups of people and a rapid flow of questioning.
She seemed primed for customer service, dolling out directions to local attractions and pointing a school group to the bathrooms. “You are wise!” one of them tells her. “No way! You are wiser than me,” she replies.
But not for long.
Japan is making leaps in robot development, with particular focus on human-robot interaction. A group of researchers at Kansai University are currently working on building in functions like involuntary reactions—goosebumps, sweat, and breath—to make them appear more humanlike.
“In Japan, people have long been drawn to humanoid-type companion and service robots like ASIMO [an assistant robot developed by Honda],” says roboticist Angelica Lim, who studied in Tokyo. “And it seems the culture (e.g. Astro Boy) have created a generation of engineers that wish to make it a reality. Combine that with the automotive industry (Honda, Toyota) that perfected robotics in factories—it’s a perfect storm.”
She notes that Japan’s love hotels often don’t have human employees. “[T]he point is that the customers want the option of discretion and privacy from the moment they step inside,” she says. “They get their room code from a machine, and pay at a machine.”
The challenge now will be to see if robots can offer satisfactory customer service at the higher-end Henn-na Hotel.
Only 10 of these robots will be deployed on launch—three at the front desk, four porters, one at coat check, and the rest to clean. Ten humans will accompany them for now, but the hotel says it hopes robots will someday comprise 90 percent of the staff.
The theme park that will host the hotel, Huis Ten Bosch—or “House in the Forest”—has a bit of a Dutch fetish. It’s three other hotels are a replica of a 100-year-old Amsterdam hotel, and two middle age Dutch towns.
Now, the pinnacle of modernity will share grounds with old-fashioned Holland. The 72-room robot hotel is set to open on July 17, and non-human helpers aren’t the only hi-tech service offered. Each room will have a facial-recognition lock rather than a key, and temperature will automatically adjust in accordance to body heat.
“We’d like to draw visitors to this setting surrounded by nature by establishing a smart hotel, which could be something we could spread through Japan and the world,” a spokesperson told The Telegraph.
But the company is banking on the robot draw, and its surprisingly low prices: Each room will start around $60 and will rise as demand does. They have little doubt that it will. A second structure that will double the available rooms is under construction for 2016, ready for the onslaught of visitors eager to test, taunt, and, likely, be outsmarted by their metallic soon-to-be overlords.