Welcome to the Henn na hotel in Sasebo, Japan. Its team of friendly, helpful staff speak several languages and will greet you with a smile, carry your bags up to one of the building’s 72 rooms and, of course, do the housekeeping once you have checked out. But if you are wondering why the receptionist looks a little dead behind the eyes, it’s because she isn’t human. Out of the 12 employees at the hotel, which will open to guests next month, only two are flesh and blood. The other 10 are life-like robots.
It sounds like science fiction but advances in automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are revolutionising how businesses are run. And it’s not just hospitality. From manufacturing to accountancy, the rise of the robots means the days of living, breathing people running a production line or calculating your taxes could be numbered. But can robots ever really be a substitute for warm-blooded workers? Or are there times when you need a human touch?
“The work robots are best at is rote work – anything that can be routinised and performed according to a manual and a set of instructions,” explains tech entrepreneur Richard Newton, author of The End of Nice: How to be human in a world run by robots. He adds that the speed of automation means many jobs will be swept away.
While automating the mundane, repetitive tasks involved in a factory production line or crunching data will inevitably help time-poor, cash-strapped small businesses make efficiency savings, Newton reassures us that scientists still have a long way to go before they create a machine that has the ability to be genuinely creative.
He says: “Robots will only do the work that can be explained to them. Increasingly the profoundly human attributes of creativity and personal connections can be simulated – from a robot quintet which composes music to automated journalists writing the news. But there is no personality to the work. That’s what people want when we come to creative tasks – we want that context and insight, that array of human skills, that comes from a rounded person rather than an algorithm.”
Consumers want to know where the products have come from and who has made them.
Sophie Jewett, the owner of the York Cocoa House, agrees. She believes that despite the unstoppable tide of automation that has transformed the food industry, nothing can compare to the intimacy a chocolate lover feels when devouring a handmade truffle or coffee cream.
She started her chocolate shop, cafe and school in resistance to what she saw as a product that she has loved from childhood becoming dehumanised through the process of automation and mass production by global confectionery companies. Jewett’s plan is to return production back to the Terry’s factory in the city by opening a chocolate processing facility with a visitor centre, cafe and shop. It will be the first time the site has been used for that purpose since the company was bought by Kraft and operations moved to Europe.
A receptionist robot performs during a demonstration for the media at the new hotel, aptly called Henn na Hotel or Weird Hotel, in Sasebo, southwestern Japan, Wednesday, July 15, 2015. From the receptionist that does the check-in and check-out to the porter thats a stand-on-wheels taking luggage up to the room, the hotel, that is run as part of Huis Ten Bosch amusement park, is manned almost totally by robots to save labor costs.
She says automation and factory production has led to chocolates being made with cheaper ingredients and delivered so far in advance that the quality has suffered. However, she believes the tide is turning and a consumer demand for more traditionally made artisan chocolates is growing.
“Consumers want to know where the products have come from and who has made them. They are more discerning and interested in trying something different,” she says. “But we need to see how automation plays a role in that change.”
Jewett says she is not a luddite, adverse to all forms of automation, but stresses that it is important to find a balance between the quantitative and the qualitative elements of the business. If something undermines the quality of the product, that is when any form of upscaling will compromise their values. That will be the key, she says, to how the business uses automation effectively to deliver its global ambitions and vision.
Of course, as the hotel in Japan highlights, robotics has the potential to do more than simply perform physical tasks – it can also lend a hand in customer service. Amelia is an artificial intelligence (AI) platform created by software company IPsoft to reduce the need for human intervention in IT infrastructure management and other business processes.
The UK tends to be very cautious and people resist change unless they have to.
This ‘mid-level knowledge worker’ can assist desks and customer service centres. Amelia can, for example, potentially take over the function of a call centre agent. But there are limitations to what it is capable of doing, however. It cannot reason and can only perform tasks that it has been ‘taught’ by a human colleague.
IPsoft’s European chief executive Frank Lansink predicts AI will be “one of the most significant trends of the 21st century” and believes it could replace 9% of the global workforce, helping businesses keep up with shrinking margins and increasing demand, flexibility cost and change.
However, what if you could create a robot that did have all the characteristics of a human and was equally creative and emotionally layered? That’s the dream of scientists developing AI and, while it might sound preposterous, the idea is plausible enough to prompt great minds such as Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates to warn that this technology could “spell the end of the human race”.
Grant Collier, an expert from the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association, claims the possibility of a robot-led doomsday is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Technology is advancing at an incredible pace and whatever the future holds, businesses large, medium and small need to join the revolution or find themselves surplus to requirement. The UK, he bemoans, is particularly slow to take advantage of automation and robotics.
Collier says the UK has to “wake up and do it”. He says: “The UK tends to be very cautious and people resist change unless they have to. But in the same way that computing transformed the way we worked and did business in the 1970s, we will realise that we will simply have to go down this route to survive and compete in the modern world.”