Cheaper to Teach Humans than to Upgrade Robots

(p. A1) SASEBO, Japan—Yoshihisa Ishikawa’s one-night stay at a robot-staffed hotel in western Japan wasn’t relaxing.

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.

Turns out, robots aren’t the best at hospitality. After opening in a blaze of publicity in 2015, Japan’s Henn na, or “Strange,” Hotel, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s first robot hotel, is now laying off its low-performing droids.

So far, the hotel has culled over half of its 243 robots, many because they created work rather than reduced it.

. . .

(p. A8) The hotel launched with around 80 robots. The initial positive reaction encouraged it to add many more for guests’ entertainment, such as a team of human and dog robot dancers in the lobby.

That’s when problems started to pile up, said the hotel’s general manager, Takeyoshi Oe.

Toshifumi Nakamura, a former hotel guest, recalled that about half the puppy-size lobby dancers appeared to be broken or in need of charging when he visited in mid-2016. Mr. Oe said the hotel increased overtime for the human staff to cope with the additional workload.

. . .

Mr. Ishikawa, the heavy snorer, said he wasn’t sure how to turn Churi off.

“She got a bad reputation,” said Hideo Sawada, president of the travel company that owns the hotel. Churi was among the robots removed.

. . .

Mr. Oe said the hotel has considered upgrading some robots but has to weigh the potentially high costs of frequent replacements. Churi was in service for four years, plenty of time for the technology to become outdated.

“Many people get a new phone every couple of years, so four years seems really old,” said Mr. Oe.

. . .

Mr. Sawada said he hasn’t given up on the idea of a hotel without human staff, but Strange Hotel has taught him that there are currently many jobs suited only for humans. “When you actually use robots you realize there are places where they aren’t needed—or just annoy people,” he said.

For the full story, see:

Alastair Gale and Takashi Mochizuki. “The World’s First Robot Hotel Is Looking for a Few Good Humans.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, January 15, 2019): A1 & A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 14, 2019, and has the title “Robot Hotel Loses Love for Robots.”)

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