This Japanese hotel is almost completely staffed by robots
Ever wondered what it’s like to stay at a hotel staffed by robots? Stop dreaming and book your trip to the Japanese island Kyushu, where you can check-in with a humanoid, get your luggage transferred by a robot trolley and turn off your room light using only your voice.
On my way to Japan’s first ever hotel completely staffed by robots, I have to get off at a station called Huis Ten Bosch. The train ride from Nagasaki to Huis Ten Bosch takes about two hours; I pass rice paddies and sleepy towns. This is not a place where you’d expect a robot hotel. Until you get to Huis Ten Bosch station, where – out of nowhere – a city arises full of iconic Dutch architecture and buildings. The aim of this theme park is to make Japanese familiar with a typical western city.
From the theme park Huis Ten Bosch, I take a shuttle bus and within minutes I stand before a Transformers-like robot, twice my size. The robot aside, it doesn’t give me the Back to the future feeling I was hoping for. After entering, though, my expectations are met; this truly is a robot hotel. Behind the reception robots, robot window cleaners, a robot cloak, robot trolley, and even a robot playing the piano.
Why a robot hotel?
Upon returning to the lobby I am greeted by Kotaro Takada, corporate Officer at the Corporate Planning Department of Huis Ten Bosch. Why did Huis Ten Bosch open a robot hotel? “Japanese society is rapidly aging. This is a problem affecting many societies throughout the world, but the issue is more urgent in Japan. A declining workforce is especially affecting the hospitality industry, which mainly consists of young people. If we don’t come up with solutions, the hotel sector will be at risk. So we accepted the challenge by opening a hotel without much human staff, whilst maintaining efficiency by utilizing robots”, he says. Importantly, the influx of tourists (20 million in 2015 compared to 10 million in 2014) made the call for a robot hotel even stronger.
Okay, enough about the hotel’s history, it is time to leave my luggage, since there is some time to kill before I can check in (I arrived two hours before check-in time, which is 3 pm). Usually, there is a special room to store luggage. Not in Henn-na: a robot cloak helps me with this. Safely tugged away behind glass the robot-arm aggressively moves around after I have chosen a free box to put my luggage in. The robot arm grabs a box, places it on the tray, after which I can leave my suitcase on it. In a matter of seconds, I’m able to get rid of my luggage. Two robot arms move sideways, right to left, a goodbye for now.
“Originally this robot is developed for the car manufacturing industry, produced by a company called Yasukawa Denki. Not that many robots that are traditionally used in the manufacturing industry are applied in the service industry. They are very excited to test their robots here. You can consider this to be a test place for the entire hotel management and robot manufacturing companies”, Takada explains.
After a disappointing visit to the park – it is pouring down, typical Dutch weather – I can finally move on to the check-in. I get to choose between a humanoid lady, who’s capable of speaking 4 languages: Japanese, Korean, English, and Chinese. The dinosaurs on her side look cool, but I try my luck with Kibo (she has a name). She talks to me, but I need to use a pen on a touch screen to fill out my name and details. The Japanese people, standing besides me, are able to check-in via voice recognition.
Frans stands beside me; he is from the Netherlands and visits Henn-na for the second time. “If you look at the technology behind this check-in process, it works similar to checking in at the airport: everything is done by the machine on the side.” So the robot doesn’t have added value? “It most certainly does have added value.” He starts laughing: “It is insane to realize you check-in with this lady humanoid and two dinosaurs. This is the smartest marketed concept I’ve ever come across. More importantly, it is a very interesting experience to stay in a hotel without any staff.”
Robot trolley and face scan
I make my way to a robot trolley. The robot detects the person walking behind it, if I slow down the robot slow down, adjusting its pace to the guest. Everything goes smoothly, and the robot tells me we have arrived at my hotel room.
First I need to scan my IC-card, after which a face recognition system makes a scan of my face. From here on a simple scan of my face suffices to get the door to open.
The hotel room is surprisingly simple and functional. The first thing that strikes me is the fact that the room temperature is adjusted to my body temperature. A kawaii (Japanese term for cute) robot is placed on the bedside table; her name is Churi-chan. Voice recognition enables me to turn the lights on and off. My Japanese translator tells me about the time he stayed at the hotel with his son and had to spend 10 minutes in the dark, because it didn’t recognize what he said. Extra features include an alarm clock, getting the weather forecast.
From a purely practical point of view, the features are limited; there is no possibility to order a taxi, get tips about the facilities around the hotel, nor can you leave a complaint through Churi-chan.
It brings me to the one thing that is still missing in Henn-na: artificial intelligence capable of handling more complex tasks. Later on I realize the most common complaint among guests is the lack of communication abilities of the robots. It is quite ironic: while Japanese people are more open to robots replacing humans than any other place in the world, they still want the robots to possess human skills.
This is the next step the hotel has to make, Takada explains. “Some companies we cooperate with are very far with artificial intelligence, they’re testing for us. Once we are certain they can be applied in the hotel, we will start using these. Then you can order a taxi, get room service, or tips about a nice café in the area.”
I decide to go back to the lobby. I see a trolley robot struggling in the hallway. Just before the finish line, I get an error message, informing me to call in the help of a back office staff member. Luckily a staff member arrives within minutes after the mental breakdown of the robot. We have a quick chat; she smiles, and disappears to her back office. As much as I like being served by robots, nothing beats a bit of human interaction.
Bobbie van der List is based in Tokyo as freelance correspondent where he covers the news for newspapers and ocassionally writes features for special-interest magazines.