A Japanese hotel is planning to use robots instead of human staff pretty much throughout the premises. Replacing human personnel by robot assistants for such tasks could perhaps also spread beyond Japan in the near future.

Robots on hotel reception, only in Japan?

The aim of the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki, Japan to have 90% of its hotel services performed by robots says a lot about the philosophy of the company behind the initiative, the Huis Ten Bosch theme park. The plan is to replace human employees for staffing reception, providing information, carrying guests’ luggage and other routine jobs. In fact, quite apart from such ‘bionic’ advances as using robotic arms and legs designed to improve a person’s physical capabilities, the idea of replacing people with robots is nothing new. The novel aspect here however is that the Henn-na Hotel, which is scheduled to open in July this year, is looking to employ robots in places where basic human interaction is involved. The animatronics division of Sanrio, Kokoro, will supply robots designed for face-to-face interaction with customers. The robots will carry out four main tasks: guest reception, giving information, carrying luggage and cleaning. However, in order to ensure that everything runs smoothly, a few human staff will be working permanently alongside the robots. The major unknown in this type of project is of course how customers will react, so in order to spot and remedy any potential problems, the theme park has already installed a robot ice-cream seller. Customer reaction has so far been “generally positive,” claims the company.



Robotics innovation worldwide

Japan is acknowledged to be a hotbed of robotics and is definitely the most innovative country when it comes to applying robotics technology. Japanese firm Kokoro has developed ‘actroids’ – realistic humanoids designed to observe basic social conventions in interaction with people and Japan is out in front in the race to build human-like robots. However, advances are taking place elsewhere in the world in developing machines able to imitate humans. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has succeeded in making robot touch 100 times more sensitive than the previous state of the art. Meanwhile, researchers in Pittsburgh are looking to improve robot social interaction, and similar work is taking place in Norway. These projects all share the same aim: improving robots’ ability to act like and get along with human beings.

Japanese cultural traits favourable to robots

Japan is the first country to employ robots in some rather unexpected places, hotels being just one example. Robot-teachers have been appearing in classrooms in Japan and there are even robot babysitters. Global nutrition, health and wellness company Nestlé has also chosen to launch its robot-sales assistant ‘Pepper’ in the Land of the Rising Sun. There are specific cultural reasons underpinning this type of approach, points out Karl MacDorman of the Intelligent Robotics Lab at Osaka University: "Someone who's lost on the Tokyo subway would probably rather ask an android for directions than another passenger, because most Japanese don't like to trouble strangers." This culture factor is at least one of the reasons behind the widespread adoption of robots in Japan but this is far from being the only country working intensively on robot technologies.

See also: Robots, a threat to jobs or just a work tool?

By Guillaume Scifo