In Nagasaki, the westernmost region of the Japanese archipelago, robots are much more than stand-ins for the future. At the Henn na Hotel, even the concierge and bellhop are robots. At the same location, the Huis Ten Bosch theme park is preparing its own Kingdom of Robots.
Nagasaki, special report
Perched on the hill above the Huis Ten Bosch theme park near Nagasaki, the Henn na Hotel resembles a North American motel with its modular two-story architecture. As soon as I walk in, I am greeted by a childlike voice coming out of a large plush figure with a pink head: “Welcome to the Henn na Hotel!” It’s Churi-chan, the hotel’s “tulip” mascot, waving at me with her entire body. Across the lobby, an industrial vaccuum cleaner bearing her image focuses on its work.
Japanese people have never been afraid of robots. Since the end of World War II, they have rebuilt their society using high technologies applied to everyday life, from services to modern industries. In the land of manga, omotenashi (hospitality) and kawaii, it’s no coincidence that the most famous (and most-loved) robot of Japanese pop culture, Doraemon, is a cat full of gadgets who came from the future to rescue his young human friend.
First smart hotel
Here, the first objective of mainstream robots is seduction. They communicate with their human colleagues and clients, imitating the appearance and/or behavior of living beings. It’s the case with Chihirajunco, the multilingual ultra-humanoid hostess, Pepper, the bestselling customizable robot brimming with hypersensitive sensors and devices that react to the person in front of him, Asimo, the joyful android that runs, skips and dances with pseudo-human agility… Not to mention Aibo, the famous robot canine produced and sold by Sony from 1999 to 2006—since the last Aibo repair centers closed in 2013, the deceased dogs have been seen honored by solemn buddhist funerals.
It’s in this highly favorable robotic context that the Henn na Hotel opened in July 2015, determined to be the first smart, low-cost and eco-efficient hotel, not least because it is staffed almost entirely by robots. The name is a play on words around the adjectif henn, which can mean “strange” but also “change”, as in evolution. One year later, the new West Arm has opened with an autonomous hydrogen energy system, prices have increased to match growing demand, and the theme park is preparing to launch an all-new Kingdom of Robots on July 16.
At the front desk, I am immediately delighted by the two life-sized Velociraptors and Actroid. When my gaze meets the gently blinking eyes of the three receptionists, whether it’s the white-clad young lady with impeccable manners or the giant reptiles with monstruous claws, I am well aware that they are robots with motion and sound sensors that are reacting to my presence. Nonetheless, as I lean in for a closer look, I have the eerie feeling of invading their personal space.
I choose to check in with Kibo (“hope”), the new twin brother of Mirai (“future”), because I like his green fur. The transaction is completed via touchscreen within minutes, as simply as purchasing a movie ticket by credit card from a kiosk.
Standing 58 centimeters tall on a stage platform in the lobby is Nao, Pepper’s little brother, famous for his smooth breakdancing moves. He introduces himself (“Hello, my name is Nao”) and follows me with his eyes. But when I ask him if he can dance, he blinks at me blankly. I get a better response to the question “Where is breakfast served in the morning?”, as he details in Japanese the place and time at the nearby health restaurant Aura.
“I’m turning left…!”
In the corridor, a bright red porter robot is standing by. I put my bag down on its platform. After scanning my key card, it brightens up with the apparent pleasure of delivering my luggage to room number 209. With a feminine voice full of energy and enthusiasm over background muzak, the red porter guides me through the halls, always staying directly in front of me, no matter how slowly I walk. At each turn, she says the same phrases as emergency vehicles in the city, but more upbeat: “I’m turning left…! I’m turning left…!” Once I remove my bag from her care and rate her five stars, she thanks me and proceeds autonomously down the hallway, still talking to herself: “I’m turning right…! I’m turning right…!” Will the self-driving cars of the future be just as chirpy?
The room door opens immediately after I flash my key card, but I also have the option of registering my face for face scanning. The scan process is more or less instant and painless, and works smoothly upon my return.
Personal assistant on a nightstand
As soon as I enter the room, a familiar childlike voice greets me and explains everything that she can do for me. Churi-chan the tulip concierge is back, this time as a functional personal assistant on the nightstand. In addition to the time, weather, park information, wake-up call and lighting control, she can also be requested to sing. But when I ask her to sing a song, adding “please”, she understands that I want her to speak in Japanese.
Well, she works better in this language anyway, and only sings Japanese songs. However, her oral comprehension of English is still rudimentary, and it takes several tries before she finally turns the lights off. That said, Churi is the hotel’s most popular robot (you can even buy a talking toy version), and as an ad hoc collaboration between Huis Ten Bosch and Sharp, is always learning more (just a few months ago, she couldn’t speak a word of English).
For early-risers, little Palro leads the morning exercise every day from 6:30 am. The rest of the day, he poses for photos, dances, gives quizzes and plays games. And he is always happy to share tips on health and nutrition. When will this level of artificial intelligence be available in every room?
At check-out, the gallant Cloak Robot manages the cloakroom of suitcase-sized drawers behind thick glass walls. If we may have already seen this kind of robotic arm manipulating factory pieces with similar industrial precision, the difference with Mr. Cloak, is that he also waves goodbye.
Follow the robots at the Henn na Hotel:
The original idea of the Henn na Hotel, “a commitment for evolution” according to its slogan, was the brainchild of Hideo Sawada, the charismatic CEO of H.I.S. low-cost travel agency, which acquired Huis Ten Bosch and its goal of “co-existence between ecology and economy” in 2010. The concept of the low-cost hotel (analogue to the ATM of wealth management) soon evolved into the concept of the robot hotel, given the instant popularity of its mechanical staff, especially among Western tourists. The eco-friendly concept (cross-laminated timber wood structure, radiant heating and cooling, solar panels, hydrogen energy…) remains unchanged.
Hotel manager Takeyoshi Oe aims for a future in which 100% of the staff is robotic, in the name of both efficiency and entertainment, reducing the number of human employees from 12 to just 2 or 3 in case of emergency. Currently, only the floor is robotically cleaned, but Oe is talking with companies about developing another robot to clean the bathrooms within a year from now. He estimates that bed-making robots will require a bit more time.
Meanwhile, Huis Ten Bosch is preparing the inauguration of its sixth thematic kingdom, the Kingdom of Robots, on July 16, 2016. New attractions include: a restaurant run by robots, featuring a chef specialized in okonomiyaki and yaki soba; live music and dance shows performed entirely by robots; a playable exhibition of robots accompanied, of course, by a shop where they can be purchased; Gundam anime projected on the big screen, robot-tank Shutebo that shoots belligerent jetstreams of water… and the giant 9-meter-tall model robocop from the manga Patlabor, already installed in the park since April.
Trailer for the Kingdom of Robots at Huis Ten Bosch:
According to project manager Ikki Nakahira, the Kingdom of Robots has three objectives: to demonstrate the efficiency of robots in all fields, from precision movement to elderly care; to entertain people; and to field-test new products developed by high-tech suppliers (which is precisely the case of the Henn na Hotel’s collaborations with Sharp, Toshiba, Softbank, Fuji Soft, etc).
How will this more commercial, more spectacular (and especially more hawkish) exploitation of robots, without neglecting their educational aspect, affect our playful, emotional and trusting perception of gentle service robots? Hopefully, it will inspire a more comprehensive understanding of robots within a larger context, for a deeper appreciation of their multiple influences on our lives.
As for the surge of all these charismatic robots, we just may end up getting emotionally attached, depending on how willing we are to suspend disbelief. As the elderly mother of one Aibo said: “Japanese people believe that every thing has a soul. I’m not the only one.”
More information (in Japanese) about the Kingdom of Robots