In the last few weeks, we have been hearing a lot about how robots have been replacing human workers across industries in developed countries. According to a recent study conducted jointly by economists from M.I.T. and Boston University, for every robot that was added to the workforce up to six workers have lost their job, and wages fell by as much as three-fourths of a percent. The study also found that up to 670,000 Americans have lost jobs to industrial robots between 1990 and 2007. Another study made an even more foreboding report —more than 10 million UK workers could be replaced by robots within the next 15 years.
While mechanization in industries is “necessary” to increase efficiency and reduce costs, robots in Japan are more of a novelty. Take Henn-na hotel near Nagasaki, for example. It has been billed as “the first robot-staffed hotel” in the world. From the receptionist to the bellhop to the concierge —all are robots.
Behind the receptionist desk stands three robots—a humanoid girl, a menacing-looking robotic dinosaur dressed in bowties and caps and a small android. The multilingual robots explain to guests how they could check in and check out. A robot porter handles the luggage and takes them directly to the rooms, while at the cloakroom, a robotic arm stores the luggage for the guests.
There are no keys to the doors; instead facial recognition is used for entry. Inside the room, a small, tulip-shaped robot sits on the bedside table and accompanies guests for the duration of their stay. The robot can turn lights on or off, find out the weather forecast, and set morning alarms.
However, when The Guardian staff Monisha Rajesh visited the hotel a year ago, she found the concept rather gimmicky because a fair deal of human intervention was required to keep the robots running correctly.
I arrive at 2.55pm. All is quiet. Behind reception is a motionless but lifelike girl robot wearing a cream jacket and a smirk. She has a sign saying “only Japanese”, so I approach another robot, this one designed, bizarrely, to look like a velociraptor and sporting a bow tie and a bellhop hat. I say hello. Nothing. I wave and he stares past me, his arms outstretched but unmoving.
“I’d like to check in please,” I shout, wondering if the robots are voice-activated. A door opens to the right and a real live human in a black T-shirt appears. “Check-in is 3pm” he says, and goes back into his room.
At 3pm the velociraptor jerks to life and says, in an American accent, “Welcome to the Henn-na hotel. If you want to check in, press one.” I start tapping the screen but the man in black appears again and asks for my passport, leaving the robot to fall into a state of inertia. How disappointing.
But the hotel’s owner, Hideo Sawada, dreams of making Henn-na “the most efficient hotel in the world” by reducing manpower and having 90% of staff be robotic.
Henn-na was also designed to be environment friendly. All the rooms are equipped with a radiant cooling system rather than a standard AC unit. The layout plan of the buildings optimizes the flow of air, brick and wood is the building materials of choice and solar panels are used for power.
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