At Japan's 'Weird' Hotel, Robots Replace Human Workers

It's one way to keep costs down.

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Jul 15 2015, 4:15pm

Image: Henn-na Hotel

Ten new hires at Henn-na hotel, opening on 17 July in Huis Ten Bosch theme park in southern Japan, are far from your average staffers.

Enter the lobby, and a trio of robots in the form of cyborg woman, a Nao bot, and a robotic dinosaur will greet and take you through check-in. A cloakroom robot (a giant industrial robot arm) inside a transparent glass box swivels between drawers to store away luggage; an information robot chatters away about events on at the park; and some concierge bots show you to your room.

You'll never have to worry about losing your room key either as you can unlock your room using a facial recognition system.

"I don't think there's another hotel like this in Japan that uses so much advanced technology and so many robots," Kotaro Takada, a spokesperson at Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki Prefecture, told me over the phone.

Image: Henn-na Hotel

It isn't just for show; as well as being an entertaining (or plain odd) experience, the hoteliers are actually trialling a new business model. By replacing regular flesh-and-blood workers with robotic ones that could work 24/7, they reckon they can bring down operation costs, and let more holiday goers take advantage of a bargain package deal in the future.

"Hotel prices in Japan are rising, so it's not easy for everyone to stay in one. But if you can reduce operation costs by cutting down on labour costs, then that means you can bring down the prices of the rooms," explained Takeda.

For the moment, a single room at the hotel costs ¥7,000 ($57) and a double costs ¥9,000 ($73), though Takada said that costs would come down further if the hotel could deploy more robot staffers in the future.

Henn-na hotel, which translates into "bizarre" hotel from Japanese, isn't the first hotel in Japan with robots. What sets it apart however, is Huis Ten Bosch's president Hideo Sawada's desire for it to be as free from human presence as possible.

Image: Henn-na Hotel

"There haven't been hotels like this before—it's a new kind of hotel, so it would be great if our customers had both an enjoyable and surprising time, and went home aware that such a hotel existed," said Takada.

While you might not be able to chat with any of the robot staffers at Huis Ten Bosch hotel just yet, they can assist with the basics. As you check in, each reception bot will welcome you and tell you what to do, before referring you to a touchscreen computer terminal where you input your details, confirm your reservation and pay. A token robot in each of the 72 bedrooms, dubbed Churi-chan and modelled on a Japanese tulip mascot, can also switch the lights on and off, and tell you the time or weather forecast when asked.

Over the past few decades, Japan has been making steps toward including service robots into its dwindling and aging workforce. A robot receptionist was introduced into a Japanese department store in April 2015, and Japanese technology and robotics company Cyberdyne recently announced it was trialling its power-enhancing exoskeletons for workers at Haneda airport.

"I don't think it's a case of robots stealing jobs in Japan. We have an aging population and there will be fewer and fewer young people working in the service sectors," said Takada. "If these robots could take the place of humans in the service sector, it would prevent the service sector from collapsing."

Image: Henn-na Hotel

Huis Ten Bosch hotel currently has ten robots, but with the company president Hideo Sawada announcing that he wanted to have "more than 90 percent of hotel services operated by robots" earlier this year, who knows how many there'll be by 2016, when the hotel builds an additional 72 rooms?

For the moment, Takada told me he was happy to be part of a experimental hotel that's sussing out if travellers can really be happy coexisting for a short time with robotic hotel staff. "I can see hotels like this becoming more popular in Japan in the future," he said, noting that the current climate in Japan seemed receptive of robotic workers.

"Robots still can't really do the things that people envision they can, but it would be great if they could take over menial tasks, leaving humans with the more creative jobs that only they can do," added Takada.

Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.