"I am Chihira Kanae, a Toshiba communication android," said a humanoid robot standing onstage as part of a presentation on the future of travel at the ITB Travel Fair earlier this year in Berlin. Wearing a blue uniform and a white collared shirt framing her silicone neck and face, Kanae robot blinked as she spoke to an audience of flashing cameras.
"I am the sister of Junko and Aico," said Kanae in her robot voice.
"I would like to work in the travel industry and to help travel companies in the future."
Kanae, who hails from Japan, can be programmed to speak any language (including sign language). She has two sisters: Chihira Aico, who assists shoppers at the Tokyo shopping center, and Chihira Junko, who offers help at an info desk at Tokyo's Aqua City Odaiba shopping mall.
These three sister robots are like a growing family of robotic Kardashian sisters and they might come to a vacation near you; everyone photographs them, their faces are made of plastic and they're not cheap. Chihira Kanae costs "about the same price as a Lamborghini," said Hitoshi Tokuda, the project leader of humanoid development at Toshiba who created the robot sisters.
Bots in tourism signal an industry shift—Hilton Hotels, for example, announced on March 9 it was teaming up with IBM for a concierge robot named Naofor a concierge robot named Nao, while the SkyMax Skytender started started mixing martinis on airplanes back in 2012. But aside from the novelty—which some experts say still a bit too uncanny to fit into normal day-to-day—what will travel look like in 2024?
Imagine underwater hotels, 3D-printed buildings on the moon and multilingual brain transplants. There are already VR travel tours with Oculus Rift, virtual travel agents like Hipmunk and virtual cloud passports are being researched in Australia, which means Australians could travel without having to show physical passports, as passport data would be stored on government servers that border agencies can access by matching data with fingerprints or digital images.
But soon, the Chihira sisters will be more common in shopping malls, train stations and airports, according to Filip Filipov, business-to-business director at Skyscanner, a travel search engine which finds flights, cars and hotels.
"Thanks to tech, travelers have no need to encounter a single human being from the time they enter a hotel to the time they check out of their room," said Filipov, who worked on Skyscanner's 2024 future of travel report.
Marriott has already gone overboard with apps—guests can check-in, get their room key and make dinner reservations all on their mobile device, as well as log into Netflix and order room service.
"Much of what the hotel reception was once needed for can now be handled by your mobile phone," said Filipov.
VR will also play a huge role in the future of travel, which Filipov says won't replace travel completely, but will be a tool for inspiration "that will allow travelers to check out destinations without leaving their house," he said.
And taking that long flight to Australia will be shortened thanks to "speed travel." Filipov said Virgin Galactic—despite its spacecraft crash—will be a strong leader in getting travelers quickly around the globe. "Imagine being able to enjoy a quick weekend trip from New York to Sydney, where you can spend two full days in Sydney versus two days flying to Sydney," he said.
It gets a little space-age, too. Hotel rooms will have mirrors that double as motion-gesture touchscreens, like Cybertecture's "cyber mirror" that stores data on mirrors which can be accessed as hotel guests brush their teeth to see daily weather, a calendar and stocks, as well as our social media apps, email and fitness tracking.
And cyborg chips and mini cameras will track everything from children to Uber drivers. "What this means for travel is that tracking, along with wearables, allows the technology to become a transmitter for travelers to share their vacation experience from their point of view," said Filipov.
As for robots like the Kanae sisters, it will still take time before they hit the mainstream.
"AI is the next phase where we learn to make recommendations based on customer's needs and preferences," said Filipov.
"The current exponential growth of chat robots and voice search skills is the first step in making this a reality."