Rise of the Machines™ The world’s first hotel “staffed by robots” has culled half of its steely eyed employees, because they’re rubbish and annoy the guests.
“Our hotel's advanced technologies, introduced with the aim of maximizing efficiency, also add to the fun and comfort of your stay,” the Henn na Hotel boasted on its website. It’s where multilingual female robots staff the reception desk. Guests are checked in using face recognition. Robot concierges carry your luggage. Robots cleaned and mixed drinks. A voice-activated robot doll is on hand at night while you sleep.
Or rather, it used to be.
The Wall Street Journal reports this week that the robo-doll interpreted snoring as a request it couldn’t understand, and thus woke guests continually through the night, asking them to rephrase.
Meanwhile, the robot luggage carrier brings to mind the old joke about Daleks conquering the world: they couldn’t get out of East Anglia.
“The two robot luggage carriers are out of use because they can reach only about two dozen of the more than 100 rooms in the hotel. They can travel only on flat surfaces and could malfunction if they get wet going outside to annex buildings,” the paper reported. “They were really slow and noisy, and would get stuck trying to go past each other,” lamented one guest.
The concierge and the room doll have now been removed.
The story highlights the shortcomings of purportedly “state of the art” AI automation that are rarely discussed. One is that they’re installed to solve a management problem rather than a customer need, as was the case here - the hotel is in an area with an acute labour shortage. Secondly, they’re just plain annoying.
As hotel manager Hideo Sadawa explained: “When you actually use robots you realize there are places where they aren’t needed - or just annoy people”.
While robotics has advanced steadily in industry, the picture is different in consumer electronics.
Trade group the International Federation of Robotics noted that sales of industrial robots had doubled in five years. But it’s largely cyclical, IFR president Junji Tsuda admitted. Adoption doubled even more dramatically between 2009 and 2010, which had nothing to do with AI and a lot to do with the falling cost of sensors and microelectronics. In industries where automation is highly advanced, such as car production, it may not move the dial much: wage rates largely govern the substitution phenomenon (whether a machine can replace a human worker).
This much was evident at the giant IFA fair last year. Toddler-level irritations were the norm. And at CES, it hasn’t got much better. Simply putting a sensor in something doesn’t make it smart. Huawei quietly turned off the default AI in its cameras late last year - as it was incorrectly applying filters that users didn’t want to be used in their shots.
Meanwhile, over at Indiegogo, the “world’s first phone with human like intelligence” appears to be falling a little short of its $2m target. Perhaps making technology more durable and reliable may eventually take priority over making it “smart”. ®