Robots to staff Nagasaki hotel. Why is Japan embracing its new workforce?

Non-human employees will be part of the staff at a Japanese hotel, beginning late this week.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP
A receptionist robot, top center, accompanied by two other robots, greets a hotel employee demonstrating how to check in the new hotel, aptly called Henn na Hotel or Weird Hotel, in Sasebo, southwestern Japan, Wednesday, July 15, 2015.

Customer service is starting to look a whole lot different in Japan. A hotel partially staffed by robots will open at the Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Nagasaki, Japan on Friday. 

Hideo Sawada, the president of the hotel, insists that using robots is not just a gimmick or a cost-saving measure, but a serious effort to use technology to achieve efficiency. In a country where the population is aging and the size of its workforce is diminishing, there is public support for such an endeavor. Already, banks, stores, and nursing homes in Japan utilize robots.

“We will make the most efficient hotel in the world,” Mr. Sawada said at a news conference, according to Japan Times. “In the future, we’d like to have more than 90 percent of hotel services operated by robots."

The hotel's name, Henn na Hotel, roughly translates to "weird hotel." But in a statement, a hotel spokesperson said the meaning of the name reflects how the hotel will change with cutting-edge technology. ‘Henn’ is also part of the Japanese word for change.

On opening day at Henn na Hotel, 10 robots will be on staff. Multilingual humanoids, with hair coiffed and eyelashes batting, will greet guests upon check-in. Other more minimal robots will be used to serve coffee, entertain guests, ferry luggage up to rooms, and perform concierge duties, The Associated Press reports.

The English-speaking robot meant to check in guests is actually shaped like a dinosaur.

"If you want to check in, push one," it says in a greeting.  

Guests can unlock their rooms without keys, using facial recognition software. According to the wire service, this technology was implemented because robots are not yet very good at finding lost keys.

Once inside, guests will not find the usual thermostat, light switches, and clock that are standard in a hotel room. A plump pink robot tulip called Tuly answers simple questions like, "What time is it?" and "What is the weather tomorrow?" Tuly also can be told to turn the lights on or off.

Rather than air conditioners, the hotel uses more energy-efficient radiant heating and cooling panels, which are attached to the walls, to keep the temperature consistent.

According to Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the nation is anticipating a tenfold increase in the market of robots and robot technology by 2035. The majority of the increase, accounting for just over half, according to the study, will be service robots which can assist with daily tasks.

Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ is testing "Nao," a customer service robot that answers basic questions and is capable of speaking 19 languages. The bank plans to add more robots to its workforce in the hopes foreign visitors during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will find it helpful, according to CNN.

At Tokyo's high-end Mitsukoshi Department Store, a greeter, who happens to have been manufactured by Toshiba, wears a traditional Japanese kimono and delivers store information.

Henn na Hotel will open with 72 rooms, and next year will open another building of the same size. Rooms are budget-friendly by Japanese standards, with a single room priced at 7,000 yen a night, or around $56, and a twin room costing 9,000 yen, or $73. During peak season, if the hotel reaches capacity, a bidding system will be used, with travelers bidding up to 14,000 yen (around $113) for a single room.

For now, the hotel will open at half capacity for the first few weeks, to ensure nothing goes haywire.

Human beings are still in charge of security. Security cameras dot the property, according to the AP, and real people are watching everything through a monitor to make sure guests are safe and no one tries to steal a robot. "And they still can't make beds," said Sawada.

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