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The Robot Hotel: Revolutionizing Hospitality

The hotel industry seemed immune to the automation that swept through other industries due to the human element needed. Now, we have a robot hotel in Japan.

It seems that there will come a time for every industry when humans will be replaced by machines. So many jobs have been taken over by machines and other tools, that it seems more and more that the future envisioned by many futuristic movies about the robot takeover is quickly becoming a reality.

While this concern is nothing new, there are those jobs out there thought to be immune to automation. These jobs tend to be “too human” to be able to work out the complex interactions between customer and business and replace the people with machines. The hotel industry was one of those that were immune to automation. There has always been a need to have a human touch.

Since biblical times when people would allow travelers to stay the night in their homes to the earliest examples of hotels like the Angel Inn in Lincolnshire, England that hosted the Knights Templar that went up in around 1200, to the industrial revolution which shrunk the world, there has always been a need for human staff to provide services to travelers.

Technological advances in the hotel industry thus far have been organizational in nature.  Automated check ins and wake up services that are run by programs have never fully replaced the need for there to be flesh and blood humans behind the counter and behind the scenes, carrying bags and delivering room service. However, with recent advances in robotics and AI, the robot takeover of the hotel industry will most likely look like this:

That technological marvel is The Hen-na Hotel, in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture. The city of Sasebo is famous in Japan for its gourmet burgers, and now has another claim to fame; the world’s first hotel fully staffed by robots. “Hen-na” means “strange”, and the character for “hen” has a second meaning of “change” referring to the changing of the industry. It is this change that was the focus of designer Yoshiyuki Kawazoe, an associate professor of architecture at The University of Tokyo.  Maintained as a part of the Huis Ten Bosch Amusement Park, the hotel is much different than the other hotels at the park that have a theme of “Europe in Japan.”

The president of the park Hideo Sawada said, “I wanted to highlight innovation. I also wanted to do something about hotel prices going up.” And innovate he did. The reception desk sets the tone as guests are greeted by 3 very different robots; Nao the  hotel concierge developed by Aldebaran Robotics that the creators say can speak 19 different languages is a small robot barely 2 feet tall. There is also a female robot designed to mimic human movements and expressions, and an animatronic dinosaur that speaks English and Japanese.

The 3 choices at the reception desk; Nao, the hotel concierge, a more familiar robot lady and a Jurassic Park escapee. PHOTO: HENN-NA HOTEL

Once checked in, you may use a porter robot to take your bags, albeit slowly to your room by typing your room number in to it. Keys are not needed as facial recognition is used to gain access to your room. Room service is delivered by a rolling vending machine. Inside the room, you’ll find Tulip, a cute lamp sized robot that is used to turn on and off the lights and can be asked general Siri type questions such as what will the weather be like or what time it is in Los Angeles. You’ll need to brush up on Japanese as “Chuli-chan” as she is referred to can only speak Japanese.

Tulip, or “Chuli-chan” is a cute little helper that you can find in every room. PHOTO: HENN-NA HOTEL

Despite all their abilities, there are a few essential tasks in the hotel that still need flesh and blood workers. “They still can’t make beds,” said Sawada who is in the planning stages to open another robot hotel somewhere else soon.

The Hen-na hotel is a proof of concept that Sawada hopes will revolutionize the way people experience hotels. It will save approximately 30% on energy costs by not using air conditioners relying on the construction of the hotel to provide airflow. There are also heat absorbing bricks and radiator panels that serve to keep the hotel cool even in the dead of summer.

Nao is a multilingual robot and there are plans to implement it in several businesses including banking. PHOTO: HENN-NA HOTEL

The hotel is currently open and rooms start about 9000 yen (about $80). There’s a lot of potential as this prototype gets off the ground.  As robots become more advanced, the world imagined in Chobits, a popular manga by legendary Japanese writers Clamp becomes more like an eventuality, people have one question: Are humans not needed?  “For five-star hotels that are selling high-end service, human staff are essential,” Sawada was quoted as saying. “But for three or four-star hotels, you need comfortable lodging, and a basic level of communication at a reasonable price.”

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Mordecai Hunter is a writer with aspirations to start his own consulting firm. He has traveled the globe and speaks 4 languages. In his spare time, he plays and repairs guitars and loves video games.

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