Robot staff at Japanese hotel spell doom for service sector jobs

This Japanese hotel may give you a glimpse of what is going to happen to many service industry jobs in the future

A hotel, located in Japan, could very well be the bastard child borne out of the feverish imagination of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, midwifed by David Lynch.

It may also be the gloomy harbinger of things to come in a fast-shifting employment landscape globally.


The Henn na Hotel (which translates to 'Weird Hotel' in Japanese), located in Sasebo, Nagasaki is populated almost entirely by robots. A creepy, grinning velociraptor and an equally eerie female humanoid check you in while an automated cart trundles off with your luggage to your room. Meanwhile, a large robotic arm stashes your remaining suitcases into the hotel's equivalent of a cloak room. The front desk then snaps a picture of the guest to be used as a facial recognition room key.

You can see all of this happening in a video posted on Youtube.

It's not as if humans don't exist at the hotel at all. Ten of them with actual blood and guts are on hand to make sure their robotic brethren, called "actroid" androids, behave properly -- which doesn't bode well for their survival if you think of what happens in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If all of this isn't bizarre enough already, the hotel is located in a theme park just outside the southern city of Nagasaki which recreates the life of a typically Dutch town, complete with Dutch-style architecture, sure to put a smile on the faces of David Lynch fans.

But there's nothing weird about the havoc that robots are going to cause in the arena of human employment, especially so in the services realm where humans have been serving other humans for a relatively low wage.

Imagine when self-driving cars, already deployed on some roads in California by Google, become a ubiquitous mode of transportation. This could potentially wipe out millions of jobs held by truck and taxi drivers and even delivery personnel.

But the low-wage service worker is not the only one facing potential annihilation from a robot invasion. Certain kinds of knowledge workers also face extinction.

Law-firms, for instance, will use e-discovery software to rapidly sift through mountains of documents rather than hire a team of infinitely more expensive paralegals. Financial planners could get replaced by dependable algorithms. Most incredibly, Associated Press today uses an automated software to actually write stories that report quarterly earnings of companies that typically require speed and accuracy.

Pulitzer Prize winning, they may not be, but they have already disrupted in a huge way the low-end of the journalism industry which is itself fighting for survival in a new media age where cat listicles make more money than the business of reporting news. An 2013 Oxford study states that "work automation will put 47% of existing jobs in the US at 'high risk,' meaning human workers in those jobs will be replaced by robots within 20 years."

There is a tendency, of course, to dramatically overdo things by regularly predicting the apocalypse due to the rise of the machines, say some. After all, the assembly line introduced by Henry Ford provided more human jobs then less. Ditto for the computer. It is generally accepted that technology, in general, has generated far more employment than it has obliterated.

The problem with this theory, argue others, is that the industrial revolution and its associated machine age took centuries to unfurl. Today, technology is changing society and occupations almost overnight. Humans today simply have too little time to adapt or retrain themselves. Entire industries -- from food to customer service to IT -- will now be transformed by automation.


In the case of the Henn na hotel, the robot staff are ostensibly there for reasons other than just gimmickry -- the tab for an overnight stay in a room at the Henn na costs just 9,000 yuan, or $73, which is at least three times cheaper than its peers, thanks to cheaper operating costs spent on human paychecks, and because of the use of power-saving equipment such as LED lights and renewable energy.

The Henn na shouldn't come as a surprise considering Japan's love affair with both robot research and industrial manufacturing, especially in automobiles, that has pioneered the use of these machines. Japan is the home of the peerless Asimo, a humanoid robot capable of running, walking, waving and kicking a football.

Osaka University has been a nerve centre for the design of actroid robots which it has licensed to Kokoro, a wing of the company that churns out Hello Kitty. "First unveiled in 2003, the model has been steadily refined with the current generation consisting mainly of robots that have been given the features (and mannerisms) of a young Japanese woman who, in addition to speaking (in Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English), will be able to make hand gestures, reciprocate eye movements (and no doubt gauge moods)," says the Telegraph newspaper.

Also, a researchers at Japan's Kansai University are working to make robots more human-like by giving them the ability to develop goosebumps, sweat, and breathe, quite possibly in retaliation for Arnold Schwarznegger taking over acting roles that should have gone to robots.

The Henna, while unusual and advanced in the ability of its humanoid help, is not alone in the employment of our machine serfs. Apparently, New York's YOTEL has robots that make coffee, deliver laundry, clean rooms and assume other similar service-related jobs. Last year, hotel colossus Starwood introduced 'Botlrs' to run around and help guests, delivering things to their rooms by using elevators unassisted.

From security guards (the University of Birmingham built one called Bob), to soldiers built by the US army, robots are on the rise, especially at the expense of service professionals.

Are there any silver linings in this portrait of doom? While the Overlook hotel it is not, the Henn na, with a desired future 90 percent rate of automation and practically no humans to sort out billing errors, luggage screw-ups and other conundrums especially for those who are late for their flights, may just find someone channelling The Shining's Jack Nicholson in the lobby.

After the dust has settled and the machines have won, we may discover that that quaint concept called the "human touch", with all its inefficiencies, is worth more than we had imagined.

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