A lot of the use of robots in our modern labor market has centered up until now on performing work related to products: manufacturing and warehousing. But it was inevitable that robots were going to creep more and more into the service industries. A new hotel in Nagasaki, Japan intends to make androids a significant part of the staff. Adrian Bridge in his article for The Telegraph, “Robots to serve guests in Japanese hotel” (Feb. 3, 2015) discusses the Henn-na Hotel (which appropriately means “strange hotel” in Japanese). Among the categories of workers that will be robots are reception desk workers, porters, housekeeping staff and a cloakroom attendant. The article says that many of the robots resemble a young Japanese woman. If this means that it will be the same Japanese woman robot over and over again, that would be pretty spooky. These Japanese woman robots will be able to speak Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English. They will also be able to gesture with their hands, move their eyes in a human way and smile. They belong to a group of highly developed androids called “actroid” androids.
The hotel where these androids will work is situated in the middle of a theme park that looks like a Dutch town. In addition, the hotel is surrounded by nature. There will be along with the androids, 10 human staff members. The theme park is hopeful that if the hotel is successful, another hotel will open in 2016, and after that, others could be opened in Japan and around the world.
A hotel is required to deal with small intimate details in order to satisfy a customer. The commercial entities that it sells are not discrete pre-made product categories that can easily be reduced to a series of pre-programmed potential interactions for the androids. The commercial entities that it sells are spontaneous interactions. The commercial entities that it sells are nuanced flowing blendable continual interactions with customers, who often have special needs based on anxieties about travel, desires to maintain unique lifestyle routines even away from home, and a need to use service staff as surrogate family, friends and even therapists. Sometimes a member of a hotel staff has to deal with an unusual crisis. What if a guest suddenly becomes sick and requires first aid and/or a doctor or even an ambulance. Well, we might say, this is where the human staff members come in. But with only 10 human staff, what if they are involved in other important tasks? What if they are in meetings? What if by the time they would get to the guest, the guest had already become very sick as with a stroke or a heart attack? And what if a guest needs CPR or the Heimlich manoeuver?
There are so many different unique flowing blendable continual situations which require nuanced decision making. These unique situations can’t possibly be effectively programmed as formal categories of life situations that would require certain discrete formulaic operational responses. All a robot can do is to try and take whatever problem situation with which a human may present him and fit that situation into one of the discrete problem situation categories with which it has been programmed for an operational response. It would appear to me that what could arise would be similar to having a computer translate a text into another language. The computer has been programmed to translate the formal denotation of a word, but is going to have trouble picking up when certain connotations come into play. The result is translations that can be bewildering or even ludicrous.
There is an additional major problem involved in using android service employees. Because of all the nuances involved in the services that can be requested by a hotel guest, there is something much more intimate involved here than using robots for blue collar work. It may be a shallow bond, but a kind of bonding does take place in the interaction between a guest and a hotel employee. The hotel employee is there to take care of you, to take care of your wants and needs. The employees at the front desk try to match your special requests for an ideal preferred room with the rooms that are available. The employees in room service have to deal with requests for meals that aren’t on the menu and that can involve very special details. Handling properly these special requests from guests is not a programmable science. Rather, it is an art. So what does it mean to interface with complex behavioral entities (namely, androids) who are there to respond to your human wants and needs, but who can do so only in a very imperfect way?
There are similarities between this kind of interfacing and some of the interfacing that has been discussed in previous articles with other kinds of robots. I am talking here about how robots are being developed as companions for humans – in particular, the very young and the very old. With children, robots are being programmed to be educators and caretakers. With the elderly, robots are being programmed to do housekeeping tasks and to help take care of health tasks like distributing medicine at the appropriate times. I have discussed how this kind of interfacing with respect to more intimate human tasks sets up subtle relationships where the robot mirrors back to the human the human’s defects in imitating the smooth crisp discrete defined angular efficient actions of the robot. At the same time, the robot acts as a model for how the human should behave in the future.
Now obviously the intensity of the bonding and therefore the degree of individual influence is not going to be great between a human hotel guest and an android hotel service provider. But what is diminished in terms of intensity is more than made up for by the pervasiveness of the robots in different sections and activities of the hotel. The modalities of robot activity are spread out through a relatively large swath of the human hotel guest’s field of experience. With robot companions, there is frontal mirroring and modeling – the human is influenced as a result of his direct face-to-face interaction with the robots. But in a situation like the Henn-na Hotel, the robot activity can literally surround the hotel guest and influence him more easily preconsciously on the periphery of his field of experience. The mirroring and modeling influences can enter a hotel guest’s mind when he is not directly paying attention.
And this kind of enveloping experiential influence by android service providers may not be limited to hotels in the not-so-distant future. Robot staffing in shops, department stores, restaurants, amusement parks, zoos and nightclubs. Why not? It would certainly be more economical for the owners and management. No need for salaries, wages, health benefits, pension plans. But apart from the fact that an awful lot of people would be put out of work, the effect of having a pervasive presence of robot service providers would be enormous.
There would be an enormous growth not only in frontal encounters with androids but also in peripheral awareness of them and their behavior and their activities. With the peripheral experiences of androids, there would be ongoing mirroring and modeling from them, even for those humans whose direct frontal encounters with them would only occupy a small portion of their day. In other words, the boundaries between what constitutes a human and what constitutes an android would become more and more blurred. People would become influenced by the presence of so many androids in their fields of experience, much the way that non-smokers can experience health problems from secondary smoke.
This is why I view the opening of the Henn-na Hotel with such concern. If it is the harbinger of a lot of things to come, the way its developers want it to be, it could have an enormous influence on the evolution of the human sense of self.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow