Robots Were So Much Better 50 Years Ago

A story in today’s Wall Street Journal by Alastair Gale and Takashi Mochizuki tells of Japan’s Henn na, or “Strange,” Hotel, which opened to great fanfare in 2015, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s first robot hotel.

A little over three years later, the hotel is “laying off” its lowest-performing droids. Here are some of the problems guests have encountered:

  • One guest 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 a.m., he realized the problem: His heavy snoring was triggering the robot.
  • Half of the puppy-size robot dancers in the lobby appeared to be broken or in need of charging according to a guest in mid-2016. The hotel’s general manager said the hotel increased overtime for the human staff to cope with the additional workload.
  • Some guests quizzed Churi, the small robot assistant in each room, about things like the opening time of the theme park which is right next to the hotel, but to no avail.
  • One guest 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. Churi has since been removed from all of the guest rooms.
  • The hotel’s main concierge robot was also axed because guests peppered it with questions it couldn’t answer, such as flight schedules and tourist attractions in nearby cities.
  • 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 one guest.
  • One humanoid figure is propped up at a self-playing piano in the hotel lobby without actually touching the keys.

Hideo Sawada, president of the travel company that owns the hotel, stated, “When you actually use robots you realize there are places where they aren’t needed—or just annoy people.”

I found the story both humorous and sad.

The idea of robots being an integral part of our lives, and perhaps taking over the world, has been around for as long as I can remember.

Who can forget Rosie the Robot from the Jetsons? Rosie is a humanoid robot fictional character in The Jetsons animated television series of the 1960s and 80s. She is the title family’s maid and housekeeper. Rosie is depicted as wearing a frilly apron, and was often seen using a separate vacuum cleaner. Her torso is mounted atop a single leg and she rolls about on a set of caster wheels. She seemed fully capable of managing the household.

Or what about Tobor the Eighth Man? If you’re not familiar with Tobor (robot spelled backward), here’ a quick synopsis. Detective Yokoda is murdered by criminals, but his body is retrieved by Professor Tani and taken to his laboratory. There, Tani performs an experiment that has failed seven times; Yokoda is the eighth subject to have his life force transferred into an android body. For the first time, the experiment succeeds. Yokoda is reborn as the armor-skinned android 8 Man, able to dash at impossible speeds, as well as shape-shift into other people. It seemed like Tobor could do anything.

These shows are from the 60s, and you think they would have offered an early prototype of how to create a robot that could interact with people. Why are robots still not able to do what we want them to do?

I guess it’s harder than the creators of those shows made it look. It seems like we’ve got a long way to go until robots can do the simple tasks that humans are fully capable of completing.

Maybe one of the first things robot creators can work on is having them recognize that snoring is not a request for assistance…

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