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Automation Watch: Robot Hotel Opens in Japan
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July 15, 2015, 04:20 PM
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The “Weird Hotel” in Sansebo still has some bugs to be solved, and the rollout was inclined to gimmicks designed to attract the sensation-seeking media, but the business does show the future.

How gimmicky is it? Well, the English-speaking desk clerk is a bizarro dinosaur robot. Really.

The Japanese-speaking clerk is a cutesy humanoid robot. The Japanese people seem attracted to humanoid robots, and the more life-like the better.

Despite the appearance of a publicity stunt in this case, the robot hotel is partially here. Check-in has been computerized for years and doesn’t require much human help. The bellhop robot can act as room service to deliver items to guests (pictured). However, the bed-making robot has yet to be invented, so humans are not completely obsolete in hotel biz.

If we think about future labor needs as hinted by the robot hotel, they will be greatly reduced. You certainly won’t need an immigrant from Mexico to tote luggage up to your room in the hotel of tomorrow. The scenario of fewer human workers is playing out across the economy from unskilled jobs like bellhop to professions in finance and medicine.

Keep in mind that two Oxford University researchers estimated in a 2013 report that nearly half of American jobs are vulnerable to automation. America is lucky that citizen outrage stopped the Gang of Eight amnesty bill from becoming law, since it mandated a doubling of legal immigration going forward.

Even so, Washington is snoozing through the revolutionary upheaval in the workplace caused by technological inventions in robots, software and automation. Political hacks like Paul Ryan preach that the retirement of the boomer generation creates a worker shortage, requiring the importation of millions of foreigners to do the jobs.

Meanwhile in the real world, the actual workforce is shrinking. As Steve Camarota observed in a May 7 opinion piece in USA Today, Labor shortage? Are you kidding?:

Today, about one out of three Americans ages 16 to 65 is not working; in 2000 it was one out of four. At the start of this year, 68 million working-age Americans (excluding prisoners) were not working — 19 million more than in January 2000. Many of those not working are not even looking for work and have left the labor force entirely. There is clearly no shortage of potential workers in America now or in the foreseeable future.
Certainly the increased regulation of business by the administration accounts for some of the workforce shrinkage, but so does the tech transformation of the smart machine workplace. And the latter cause is not a part of economic discussions in the big capitol city. The willful ignorance is dangerous.
Robots do check-in and check-out at cost-cutting Japan hotel, Atlanta Journal Constitution, July 15, 2015

SASEBO, Japan — From the receptionist that does the check-in and check-out to the porter that’s an automated trolley taking luggage up to the room, this hotel in southwestern Japan, aptly called Weird Hotel, is “manned” almost totally by robots to save labor costs.

Hideo Sawada, who runs the hotel as part of an amusement park, insists using robots is not a gimmick, but a serious effort to utilize technology and achieve efficiency.

The receptionist robot that speaks in English is a vicious-looking dinosaur, and the one that speaks Japanese is a female humanoid with blinking lashes. “If you want to check in, push one,” the dinosaur says. The visitor still has to punch a button on the desk, and type in information on a touch panel screen.

Henn na Hotel, as it is called in Japanese, was shown to reporters Wednesday, complete with robot demonstrations, ahead of its opening to the public Friday.

Another feature of the hotel is the use of facial recognition technology, instead of the standard electronic keys, by registering the digital image of the guest’s face during check-in.

The reason? Robots aren’t good at finding keys, if people happen to lose them.

A giant robotic arm, usually seen in manufacturing, is encased in glass quarters in the corner of the lobby. It lifts one of the boxes stacked into the wall and puts it out through a space in the glass, where a guest can place an item in it, to use as a locker.

The arm will put the box back into the wall, until the guest wants it again. The system is called “robot cloak room.”

Why a simple coin locker won’t do isn’t the point.

“I wanted to highlight innovation,” Sawada told reporters. “I also wanted to do something about hotel prices going up.”

Staying at Henn na Hotel starts at 9,000 yen ($80), a bargain for Japan, where a stay in one of the nicer hotels can easily cost twice or three times that much.

The concierge is a doll-like hairless robot with voice recognition that prattles breakfast and event information. It cannot call a cab or do other errands.

Japan is a world leader in robotics technology, and the government is trumpeting robotics as a pillar of its growth strategy. Robots have long been used here in manufacturing. But interest is also high in exploring the potential of robots in human interaction, including helping care for the elderly.

Robotics is also key in the decommissioning of the three reactors in Fukushima, northern Japan, which went into meltdowns in 2011, in the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl.

One area Henn na Hotel still relies on human beings is security.

The place is dotted with security cameras, and real people are watching everything through a monitor to make sure guests stay safe and no one makes off with one of the expensive robots.

“And they still can’t make beds,” said Sawada, who has also engineered the rise of a popular affordable Japanese travel agency.

He has big ambitions for his robot hotel concept and wants to open another one soon in Japan, and later abroad. He is also eager to add other languages, such as Chinese and Korean, to the robots’ vocabulary.

A block-shaped robot that was scuttling around in the lobby had been brought in to do room service, delivering beverages and simple snacks. But it wasn’t ready to do that yet.

Outdoors, Sawada also demonstrated a drone that flew in to deliver a few small jars filled with snacks. He said he wanted to eventually have drones perform in shows for guests.

In the hotel’s rooms, a lamp-size robot in the shape of a fat pink tulip called Tuly answers simple questions like, “What time is it?” and “What is the weather tomorrow?”

You can also tell it to turn the room lights on or off. There are no switches on the walls.

Sawada is keeping the hotel half-filled for the first few weeks to make sure nothing goes wrong.

He also canceled at the last minute the overnight stay planned for media. The robots simply weren’t ready.