There’s new hope for those workers who are preparing to be replaced by robots (or managed by robot overlords.) A January 14 article in the Wall Street Journal reports that a Japanese hotel whose workforce consisted mainly of robots, has pulled the cord (so to speak) on the experiment. Reporters Alastair Gale and Takashi Mochizuki write “So far, the hotel has culled over half of its 243 robots, many because they created work rather than reduced it.” The robots were making stupid mistakes and unable to learn from them.
So much for Artificial Intelligence – at least in real life customer service.
Japan’s Henn na, or “Strange,” Hotel, located in Western Japan near an amusement park, opened in 2015. The hotel is in a remote location where hiring workers was challenging, so the robots were an actual attempt to alleviate staffing problems in addition to being a marketing gimmick.
Each room was staffed with a personal robot called Churi that was supposed to take care of customer needs and inquiries. But customers were becoming irritable because the robots couldn’t answer questions that should be easy and frequent, like the hours of the nearby amusement park or inquiries about transportation options. The robot concierge couldn’t handle requests for help with airline schedules or nearby attractions. It was replaced by a human.
The robots only knew what they knew, so guests relied on virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa instead. The robots were also less than adept at interpreting language. One visitor reported “He was roused every few hours during the night by the doll-shaped assistant in his room asking: ‘Sorry, I couldn’t catch that. Could you repeat your request?’ By 6 a.m., he realized the problem: His heavy snoring was triggering the robot.”
More and more human staff were hired to deal with maintaining and repairing the robots and fixing customer service issues. Even the robots doing low-level menial tasks couldn’t perform consistently. “[The robot luggage carriers] can travel only on flat surfaces and could malfunction if they get wet going outside to annex buildings.” They also frequently collided with each other, something human bellboys are not normally known for.
American hotel chain Aloft has also added robots (model name: botlr) to its staff. They transport luggage and deliver food orders from room service. The American bots seem to navigate around guests and use elevators easily with few mistakes, using the hotel wifi signal. When a guest calls down and asks for a toothbrush or extra towels, hotel employees load up the robot with the requested items, dial in the room number, and the bot handles the rest.
Robots, of course, work tirelessly for no pay, and that means travelers will also spend less on tips. Like most young employees, they crave social media approval more than monetary rewards. When the robot arrives at the room, the guest can enter in a rating on the robot’s touchscreen, or offer a “tip” in the form of a tweet to the hashtag #MeetBotlr. Sigh.