Animatronic Hospitality

Japan’s Robot Hotel Just Laid Off Half Its Robots

Automation? In this economy?

1. 15. 19 by Dan Robitzski
Henn-na Hotel
Image by Henn-na Hotel

Powering Down

Japan’s iconic Henn-na — literally “Strange” ­— hotel has decommissioned half of the 243 robots it once used to handle everyday operations.

Since opening in 2015, the hotel has raised publicity by “employing” hundreds of bizarre robots that ranged from bizarre-but-helpful-I-guess to downright annoying, according to The Wall Street Journal. The robot helpers made for a fun gimmick, but weren’t quite ready for the big leagues — a blow not just to dreams of an automated world, but to Japan’s pop-culture image as a leader in the space.

Bugging Out

Some of the problems stem from creative ideas that didn’t pan out, like a robot velociraptor that staffed the check-in desk. Others came from an inability to keep up with the breakneck pace of assistive technology, like how Churi, the personal assistant robot found in each room, could handle basic tasks but pales in comparison to the personal assistant that comes standard with any new smartphone.

In case after case, these robots proved too annoying or broke down too often to be worth the trouble, according to the WSJ. The velociraptor couldn’t handle foreign guests, for instance; human employees had to come over to photocopy their passports.

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Churi could change a room’s temperature and respond to basic small talk, but couldn’t answer any questions about the area or other attractions. Meawhile, Henn-na Hotel’s management was so confident in the robots’ abilities that they didn’t equip rooms with phones. Later on, management made up for Churi’s limitations with the cutting-edge solution of placing a human employee at the front desk to answer questions.

Meanwhile, Churi would reportedly wake up guests again and again after mistaking their snoring for a question that the robot couldn’t quite understand.

Trying Again

So what if Henn-na Hotel’s robotic luggage shuttles get in each other’s way and can only access about a quarter of the hotel’s rooms without breaking down? The ubiquitous presence of these robots, even the immobilized bot who forever sits at the piano without ever playing a note, gives the hotel a retro-futuristic vibe, sort of like how the Jetsons had an autonomous robot maid but still gathered around a tiny television set.

In the future, Henn-na Hotel plans to adopt robotic technology that’s more similar to the advances we see elsewhere, like facial recognition door locks, the WSJ reports. It won’t be as charming, but it should work a little bit better.

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READ MORE: Robot Hotel Loses Love for Robots [Wall Street Journal]

More on robotic limitations: You Have No Idea What Artificial Intelligence Really Does


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