Velociraptors make bad hotel staff

The Japanese robot hotel has laid off its velociraptors.

I bet that’s not a sentence you thought you’d be reading when you first opened up your emails this morning.

But it’s true. A three years ago, a hotel in Japan made headlines all around the world for being the first ever “robot hotel”.

It had velociraptors behind the desk to help you check in, a robot concierge to help you get acclimatised and robot porters to carry your bags to your room.

Here is one of its check-in velociraptors hard at work.

Source: Henn-na Hotel

Back when it opened, Hideo Sawada, the hotel’s owner, said he wanted to make “the most efficient hotel in the world” by staffing his hotel with robots instead of humans.

The hotel is located in a theme park in Japan, and much like the last theme park that tried to employ dinosaurs, it didn’t end too well.

The robots created more problems than they solved and increased the human staff’s workload. They had to go.

As Engadget writes:

Hotel manager Takeyoshi Oe and company president Hideo Sawada have acknowledged the practical limitations of robots when explaining the reasons for the layoffs. The technology obsoletes rapidly, for starters — what seemed cutting-edge in 2015 can be hopelessly obsolete in 2019, and replacements are expensive. And more importantly, some of the robots were ultimately superfluous. There are situations where robots “aren’t needed,” Sawada said, and sometimes they simply “annoy people.”

As you can probably tell by my tone, I really liked the ridiculousness of this robot hotel, and I’m sad to see it forced to lay off its hard-working robots.

I watched an episode of Netflix’s Dark Tourist (which is fantastic, if you haven’t seen it) a few months ago where the Louis Theroux-like presenter stayed in this hotel.

It wasn’t the greatest experience. Like the Engadget article suggests, many of the robots didn’t work too well. But as a novelty stay, it looked a lot of fun. And it only costs £60 a night.

On a more serious note, this surreal story highlights a lot of issues we are going to face as automation really takes hold.

If you’ve ever had to deal with new software, computer systems or machines at work, you’ll know this all too well.

Employers introduce these new practices to save costs and increase efficiency. And in the end, they usually do exactly that. But not before a great deal of inefficiency, frustration and heartache.

You’ll notice that the main reason the robot hotel has fired its robots is because they were creating more work than they were actually doing.

I think this is a universal problem when it comes to automating workforces. What at first people think will improve efficiency, can sometimes do the opposite.

Right now there are many conflicting arguments about just how many jobs automation will replace. We have reputable voices and studies popping up with wildly different estimates.

To quote Recode (emphasis mine):

Tech CEOs and politicians alike have issued grave warnings about the capability of automation, including AI, to replace large swaths of our current workforce. But the people who actually study this for a living — economists — have very different ideas about just how large the scale of that automation will be.

For example, researchers at Citibank and the University of Oxford estimated that 57 percent of jobs in OECD countries — an international group of 36 nations including the U.S. — were at high risk of automation within the next few decades. In another well-cited study, researchers at the OECD calculated only 14 percent of jobs to be at high risk of automation within the same timeline. That’s a big range when you consider this means a difference of hundreds of millions of potential lost jobs in the next few decades.

I think we are very likely to see the robot hotel debacle repeated over and over again by different companies in different industries.

The robot revolution may not be as swift and smooth as many believe.

There is no doubt that artificial intelligence (AI) and robots are going to replace a massive number of jobs. But along the way, we’re probably going to find out there are a large number of roles they aren’t suitable for – yet.

Companies are constantly afraid of being left behind and seen as out of touch. And this fear will likely push them into jumping on the AI bandwagon before it is fully built.

One company that is clearly thinking about this issue, in a broader sense, is Apple.

I don’t really like to use Apple as an example in my articles because it is completely overdone.

But one thing it is very good at is not jumping on the bandwagon before it’s fully built. Over the years, Apple has waited until a technology is good and ready, before it went about perfecting it.

MP3 players had been out a number of years before Apple created the iPod. Smartphones were going strong before Apple made its iPhone, and tablets had been available for almost a decade before Apple released its iPad.

So, what is Apple holding back on right now? 5G. It has stated that unlike most of its competitors, it won’t be releasing a 5G phone this year. Whether this turns out to be a good strategy or not, time will tell.

But back to the robots.

Perhaps Sawada’s robot hotel was a little too novelty to ever work well. Or perhaps velociraptors just don’t make good check-in staff.

I’m fairly certain that over time robot-staffed hotels will become commonplace, but just not right now.

If you want to find out the areas where robots and AI really are making a difference, take a look at Nick O’Connor’s book, The Exponentialist.

He has spoken to leading AI and robotic experts to find out which industries are going to be impacted most – and how you can invest to take advantage of these changes.

Around a third of the whole book I dedicated to robots and AI, and how they are going to impact our lives.

If you haven’t already read Nick’s book, you can claim your copy here.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Robotics

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