SASEBO, Japan – Yoshihisa Ishikawa’s one-night stay at a robot-staffed hotel in western Japan wasn’t relaxing.
He was roused every few hours during the night by the doll-shaped assistant in his room asking: “Sorry, I couldn’t catch that. Could you repeat your request?”
By 6 am, he realized the problem: His heavy snoring was triggering the robot.
Turns out, robots aren’t the best at hospitality. After opening in a blaze of publicity in 2015, Japan’s Henn na, or “Strange,” Hotel, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s first robot hotel, is now laying off its low-performing droids.
So far, the hotel has culled over half of its 243 robots, many because they created work rather than reduced it.
“It’s easier now that we’re not being frequently called by guests to help with problems with the robots,” said one staff member who has worked at the hotel for three years.
Robots and other devices that could be useful to the hospitality industry were all over the CES consumer-technology show last week in Las Vegas. Self-driving shuttle buses can move visitors around; a Lenovo Smart Clock with a built-in Google assistant can turn the lights on or read you a bedtime story, and a delivery robot called Segway-Ninebot Loomo Delivery can zip goods around a building complex.
Hotels in the Yotel and Aloft chains in the United States use three-feet high droids that deliver mail, toiletries and drinks to rooms. Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba launched the Space Egg robot hotel porter late last year, and the Hilton in McLean, Virginia, employs a robot concierge.
But Strange Hotel’s attempt to add more and more contraptions fizzled. One goal was to overcome labor shortages by using machines for tasks from luggage storage to mixing cocktails to cleaning. The hotel is next to a theme park in a rural area with severe shortages of workers.
Strange Hotel also aimed to lure foreign tourists by tapping into the image of Japan, a country that has produced smart toilets and hologram girlfriends, as a technologically-advanced nation.
“Enjoy conversations with robots with a humanly kind of warmth, while they work efficiently,” the hotel’s management company said in a press release about the hotel opening.
The hotel launched with around 80 robots. The initial positive reaction encouraged it to add many more for guests’ entertainment, such as a team of human and dog robot dancers in the lobby.
That’s when problems started to pile up, said the hotel’s general manager, Takeyoshi Oe.
Toshifumi Nakamura, a former hotel guest, recalled that about half the puppy-size lobby dancers appeared to be broken or in need of charging when he visited in mid-2016.
Oe said the hotel increased overtime for the human staff to cope with the additional workload.
Guests became frustrated when the hotel’s robots failed to keep pace with Siri or Alexa. One laggard was the robot assistant in each room named “Churi” because of its tulip-shaped head. The doll-like device can manage simple hello-how-are-you type conversations and adjust room heating and lighting in response to voice commands. But some guests quizzed her in vain about things like the opening time of the nearby theme park.
Atsushi Nishiguchi, a guest at the hotel in 2017, said that after an irate exchange with Churi he decided to phone the hotel reception, only to find there was no phone in the room because the assistant was intended to handle guests’ requests. He used his cellphone to call the main hotel number to reach a human worker.
Ishikawa, the heavy snorer, said he wasn’t sure how to turn Churi off.
“She got a bad reputation,” said Hideo Sawada, president of the travel company that owns the hotel. Churi was among the robots removed.
Similarly, the hotel’s main concierge robot was axed because guests peppered it with questions it couldn’t answer, such as flight schedules and tourist attractions in nearby cities. These days, a human staff member is usually available to answer questions in the lobby.
Oe said the hotel has considered upgrading some robots but has to weigh the potentially high costs of frequent replacements. Churi was in service for four years, plenty of time for the technology to become outdated.
“Many people get a new phone every couple of years, so four years seems really old,” said Oe.
Other robots that were anticipated to be labor savers fell short. Humans have to help the two velociraptor robots at the check-in desk when foreign guests arrive by making copies of their passports.
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.
“They were really slow and noisy, and would get stuck trying to go past each other,” said Taishi Mito, a guest at the hotel in 2017.
One success: A huge mechanical arm that moves luggage into and out of storage boxes.
Newer branches of Strange Hotel are sticking to the robots that have proven useful.
In Sasebo, the hotel decided to shift its emphasis to more subtle uses of technology. It recently opened a new annex that will generate all its electricity from solar panels and uses facial-recognition technology for guest room door keys.
The main building still has plenty of robots, although some don’t appear to do much. One humanoid figure is propped up at a self-playing piano in the hotel lobby without actually touching the keys.
Sawada said he hasn’t given up on the idea of a hotel without human staff, but Strange Hotel has taught him that there are currently many jobs only suited for humans.
“When you actually use robots you realize there are places where they aren’t needed, or just annoy people,” he said.