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Domo arigato misuta roboto

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaMove over skanky humans, weird, wonderful and wild robots are taking over hotels, banks and retail stores.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Robots invade the hotel workspace

Rubber greeting at Henn-na Hotel Japan (left) and the mildly frightening Han (right). The future of hotels?

MOST TRAVELLERS find themselves faced with a terrible dilemma at 6am after arriving on the red-eye to find their hotel room is only available after 2pm. You need to be dapper and dazzling for that board meeting at 9.30am. What to do? Catnap on the lobby couch? Or bang your suitcase on a smug receptionist’s head till all his teeth fall out and you hear them tinkling, satisfyingly, on the Italian marble floor?

The latter option may become a reality – without really hurting anyone’s feelings or raising guest eyebrows – if hotels have their way in introducing rubber-skinned robots to deal with check-in and a few other chores.  Han, from Hanson Robotics was revealed at an electronic show in Hong Kong recently to loud gasps from the audience, mainly in response to his awful grimaces as he bravely fielded questions from routine to risqué.

With 40 motors controlling facial expression and tilt of the chin, and a soft latex skin called ‘frubber’, this is a talking head to elicit extreme awe or alarm. He has no feelings but is humanoid enough to peer or leer at you, raise his eyebrows, and make semi-intelligible pronouncements when you interact via a mobile app. He can see you through cameras and uses voice recognition to talk. When were you born Han? I was first activated in Hong Kong. Do you have a girlfriend? Yes, I like women very much. What do you do on weekends? Nothing.

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In other words, he’s a perfect hotel receptionist. The next step might be to have rubber sex dolls in hotel rooms to help with the jetlag.

But what about a smiling robot check-in girl? No hanky-panky or hokum. Expect just a straightforward Japanese-style welcome this summer at the Henn-na Hotel in the quirky but lavishly detailed Huis Ten Bosch mini-Holland theme park. The property plans to employ humanoid ‘actroid androids’ to bring staff costs down and increase productivity. No mention here of guest reactions.

{Hotel actroids speaking Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean will make eye contact with humans, blink, and breathe, to make guests feel more at ease....

As many as 10 robots will join the 72-room hotel to help with stuff like meeting people at reception, smiling and waving at kids, carting bags and even cleaning rooms. This is very much in line with the Japanese President Shinzo Abe’s call to the nation to “work out a strategy for using robots to solve labour shortages amid the declining birth rate and ageing population.”

Hotel actroids speaking Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean will make eye contact with humans, blink, and breathe, to make guests feel more at ease. Hideo Sawada, president of Huis Ten Bosch says his team is creating the “most efficient hotel in the world," and goes on to declare that eventually, they’d “like to have more than 90 percent of hotel services operated by robots."

In Japan, robots are arriving at banks too, offering customer services and more. Nao is just 58cm tall and weighs in at a little over 5kg. He is diminutive but dashing, and speaks 19 languages. Most pleasing to Mitsubishi Bank, is the fact that he works 24 hours a day. Launched at two retail centres in April 2015, the bank hopes to roll Nao out across Japan in order to be well prepared for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

These robots – not entirely humanoid, but more in the ASIMO transformer mould – will be a sharp bunch with cameras and microphones enabling them to detect customer mood and emotion. Hello I’d like to rob the bank. I’m delighted to meet you. I was activated at 6am. I am robbing the bank. Thank you. What is your account number?  DAGNABBIT, GIVE ME ALL YOUR MONEY OR I’LL... er… turn off your power switch.

Another Nao lookalike is Pepper. He’s employed by Nestle Japan and should have another 999 siblings by December 2015. Pepper helps sell Nescafe Barista coffee machines at some retail stores. He’s interactive, answers questions and can read emotions too.

Starwood’s funky Aloft brand aimed at the young and restless has been testing out its three-foot-tall A.L.O (just say ‘el-oh’), a robot butler, in Cupertino. He’s a large streamlined beer can, with a small computer monitor for a ‘face’ and a painted collar, and is referred to as a ‘botlr’. Ah the joys of digital word mashing. These vinyl wonders are not out to replace human beings, but to handle simple tasks – like delivering late night orders to rooms – thus freeing up real people for real tasks, like tripping A.L.O or tossing him in the pool to see if he can swim, or making him race around the lobby.

Later, from Hanson Robotics a delightful companion for Han – a female talking head called Eva. Do you have a boyfriend Eva? That Han is a rubbernecker moron. I’m off with Nao to rob a bank.

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