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Japan Is Opening a Hotel Staffed Almost Entirely by Robots

Lifelike replicas of young Japanese women, fluent in Chinese, English, Korean, and Japanese, will be capable of making eye contact, reading body language, and responding to organic conversation.

Image via Flickr user k rupp

A hotel in Japan staffed primarily by humanoid robots is set to open this July. It will be located in the Nagasaki prefecture, and rather than a one-off, glitchy gimmick, the hotel is part of an influx of socially reactive service robots flooding Japan, backed by the government's support, as a means to solve some of the nation's labor force problems.

The concept for the Henn-na Hotel (whose name means strange and change and whose slogan is "A Commitment for Evolution") was first announced on January 28, but more details about its operations have trickled in over the past week. The hotel, located in Huis Ten Bosch, a theme park modeled after a 17th century Dutch village and stocked with schlocky rides, will feature a staff of ten robot "actroids," lifelike replicas of young Japanese women created by the Kokoro company. Three actroids, capable of making eye contact, reading body language, and responding to organic conversation, and fluent in Chinese, English, Korean, and Japanese, will man the reception desk. Four more will work as maids and porters. It's unclear what the remaining three will do (beyond presumably mastermind their eventual uprising), but they will have a skeleton staff of human overseers... for now.

Aside from its robotic labor, the hotel boasts other futuristic accouterments as well—facial recognition locks, body heat-linked thermometers, and solar powered everything—to minimize waste and costs. This efficiency will allow people to stay in one of the hotel's 72 rooms for just $60 to $153 per night.

Huis Ten Bosch President Hideo Sawada appears to have plans on further mechanizing and expanding his network of cybernetic doomsday sleeper cells futuristic, affordable inns.

"In the future, we'd like to have more than 90 percent of hotel services operated by robots," The Verge quoted Sawada as saying.

"We'll make the most efficient hotel in the world," Sawada told reporters. "In the future, we're hoping to build 1,000 similar hotels around the world."

Sawada's not the first to figure out how much you can save by cutting humans out of the hotel service equation. Since 2013, Shenzhen, China, has been home to the Pengheng Space Capsules Hotel, a similarly mechanized hotel with minimal human managers that charges just $10 for a night in a basic bed pod. However, many of these mechanized hotels rely on less emotionally responsive, humanoid robots like Henn-na's actroids and more on traditional, impersonal droids.

While we've grown accustomed to seeing such traditional robots—expressionless and clearly controlled—assisting in all sorts of rote mechanical tasks, more humanoid machines, like Honda's Asimo, have been around since at least 2001. But they're usually portrayed as prohibitively expensive and still-clunky stunts, promises of some greater robotics future. With this background in mind, Henn-na's actroids seem like a great leap forward from the simple and one-use robot baseball pitchers or herky-jerky robot cheerleaders we've seen to date.

Yet the actroids themselves aren't new technology either. Kokoro's had them in development since 2003, building on earlier emotionally responsive humanoid robots out of Osaka University. By 2010, actroids and other expressive denizens of the uncanny valley were being used in hospitals to monitor patients and as stand-ins controlled by actors in plays. The rich and weird could order a custom-made copy of themselves for $225,000, and today there are even masses of almost-Cylons go-go dancing in outlets like Tokyo's Robot Restaurant.

And these actroids are only one of a slew of increasingly affordable, socially responsive (although often less physically human) service robots that have started flooding the Japanese labor market over the last few months. Nestlé Japan recently announced that they would start using 1,000 Peppers, four-foot white robots capable of reading emotions and comprehending about 75 percent of spontaneous conversation, to sell coffee pots in their retail outlets. The bots, manufactured by telecoms giant SoftBank, sold for just $2,000 each. And just last week Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group announced that, as of April 2015, two of their branches would try turning over teller operations to the nearly two-foot Nao robot, capable of analyzing emotions and responding to customers. Meanwhile companies like Kwanda Industries are trying to sell companies on their Nextage robots, which move like humans and run on less wattage than a hair dryer, as alternatives to menial laborers and cheap solutions to 24-hour service jobs. Alongside these big orders and projects, many smaller restaurants and other service providers have turned over basic customer-relations operations to socially responsive robots of one sort or another.

This rapid advance in robotics development, manufacturing, and services has the avid support of the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who sees it as a major component of economic growth for a nation facing labor scarcity and increasing healthcare and welfare costs. Abe has pledged to triple Japan's robotics industry within the next few years to a $24 billion market, and many others hope the field will skyrocket to $70 billion within a decade.

"We want to make robots a major pillar of our economic growth strategy," Abe told Jiji Press over the summer of 2014. 'We would like to set up a council on making a robotic revolution a reality in order to aid Japan's growth."

Abe followed this statement by floating the idea of hosting the world's first ever Robot Olympics parallel to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In doing so, he's pulling on Japan's deep-seated and globally infectious love for robo sports to fuel his own version of a Space Race, sparking innovation and fascination, driving support and interest in his vision of a cybernetic salvation.

Abe and company have good reason to look toward a robotic future given Japan's demographic trajectory. Due to declining birth rates, many fear that between 2005 and 2025 the nation will have lost 14 million workers. Already, as of 2014, the nation uses a million industrial robots in factories—more than any other nation—and (despite limited talk about turning back toward low-scale, high-quality human craftsmanship) hopes to keep pace with their declining workforce by adding another million by 2030. But as the nation's population decline will affect more than just industrial jobs, some hope to see the rollout of tens of millions of Peppers and similar communicative robots in the coming years to pick up the slack in the service industry, depressing the high cost of labor and making it easier for businesses to expand sans easy copious workforce.

Officials especially want to see more robots enter the elder care service industry. Right now, with birthrates below replacement levels and an average lifespan of 86 years, Japan already has a 22 percent over-65 population and massive social welfare expenses dragging down on the debt-ridden economy. Many fear that by 2060 the population will crash from 127 million to 87 million, and the geriatric demographic will rise to 40 percent. With so few workers to go around, the nation is already short by almost one million on the number of elder care workers needed, and care will only become more expensive, overburdened, and scare with each coming year.

So the government's sunk over $100 million into research over the past couple of years to create new elder care service robots and drive their cost toward $1,000 a pop. As a result, we've got a glut of chairs with human faces that hug lonely elders, fake seals that can reduce the anxiety of dementia patients, and even quasi-Iron Man suits to help with mobility and strength in old age, each going for a few hundred to thousand bucks apiece rather than the hundreds of thousands they would have a few years ago. Government officials believe they can save up to $21 billion in a decade by mechanizing elder care, and in the process create a globally-renowned and specialized $3.3 billion geriatric robotics industry to help float the Japanese economy in spite of its loss of workers, working toward balancing out the costs of its demographic shift.

As the Japanese show little interest in sex or procreation these days, it's unlikely that the country's demographic pressures will change anytime soon. So the government will probably continue to hype and subsidize research into cost effective, mass marketable, and interpersonally communicative robots to replace its waning workforce, buoy its economy, and provide for its aging populace. Meaning it's going to be both cheaper and more necessary year-by-year for companies to invest in actroids, Peppers, and Decepticons to serve as chefs, clerks, and concierges. That makes it likely that Henn-na will expand its operations—and that copycat hotels will start a race with them to provide more realistic and robotized hotel services.

All of this would be pretty cool, if not for Henn-na's staff's unshakable problem of the uncanny valley. The less realistic robots seem a lot better at first blush. But it's hard to shake a certain sci-fi fear about a future society dominated by emotionally responsive robots, increasingly capable of humor, learning, and personality—especially when at least one of the companies behind these technologies legitimately shares its name with the evil corporation from Terminator. So there's always that niggling fear that we're looking at the birth of Skynet here as well—in a Dutch village-themed amusement park. At least it's an amusing place to usher in the apocalypse.

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