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This Time Humans Triumph Over Robots As They Take Back Hotel Jobs


Now a story about a disruptive technology that's not quite ready to disrupt, at least the hospitality industry.


Back in 2015, there was a lot of buzz around a new hotel in a remote area of Japan.


SETH DOANE: The opening of a small, low-cost hotel doesn't usually warrant international attention.


TIM HORNYAK: Would you check into a hotel staffed by robots?


GAYLE KING: The machines can check you in. They can carry your luggage. They can even offer travel suggestions.

CORNISH: The Henn-na Hotel was the world's first robot hotel, even got that title from "The Guinness Book Of World Records" - a robot concierge, robot porters and entertainers and robot vacuums.

ALASTAIR GALE: One of the first things you see is this massive robotic arm that is used to store people's luggage.

SHAPIRO: That's Alastair Gale, who covers Japan for The Wall Street Journal. He recently spent a night at the hotel.

GALE: And you go in, and you turn the corner, and then you see these two dinosaurs - velociraptors, to be precise.

SHAPIRO: Yes, talking robot dinosaurs at the reception desk.



CORNISH: Gale says those dinosaurs were the first red flag that something was amiss in robot paradise.

GALE: The dinosaur is not capable of copying your passport or other ID, so what happens is a human member of staff comes out from sort of behind a curtain and completes the job for the dinosaur.

SHAPIRO: Probably those tiny dinosaur arms. Turns out many of the robots are not great at their jobs.

CORNISH: Gale says the piano playing robot in the lobby doesn't actually play the piano.

SHAPIRO: The robot porter can't reach most of the rooms because it can't climb stairs or go outside.

CORNISH: And the front desk, well...


COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Please ask me a request, but don't ask me a difficult question because I am a robot.

SHAPIRO: Gale says the seven humans on staff were spending most of their time trying to recharge the robots or help guests when the robots failed.

GALE: It was just impossible for the staff to keep on top of everything. And what happened was they, you know, told the staff, well, you're just going to have to work extra overtime, you know, to deal with the robot problems.

CORNISH: One guest on TripAdvisor commented, this robot hotel is badly in need of some humanizing.

SHAPIRO: Which is eventually what happened. Gale reports that as of this month, the Henn-na robot hotel has, for lack of a better word, fired over half its 243 robots.

GALE: You know, it's quite sad because it does feel like - a bit like a sort of robot graveyard where there's robots around the place that are, you know, unplugged or in bags or sort of just been chained off.

CORNISH: Elsewhere you might hear about technology making human jobs obsolete. But at the robot hotel, the robots' jobs are being reclaimed by humans.

GALE: Interacting with human beings is very complicated, and it's something that if it doesn't go smoothly, it could be a very jarring experience. You know, you just get frustrated. That's not the kind of experience you want to have. So you don't want to annoy your guests. And it's going to take a while before they've - you know, they get it right.

SHAPIRO: But don't worry. Those dinosaurs at the front desk - they made the cut. The velociraptors are still gainfully employed.


STYX: (Singing) Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto - domo, domo. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.