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Robots at reception: S.African hotel turns to machines to beat pandemic

A general view on Africa's tallest building, The Leonardo (C), towering over other building in Sandton City, Johannesburg, South Africa, 16 October 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK)

JOHANNESBURG, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Staff at Hotel Sky in Johannesburg's wealthy Sandton district adhere to strict COVID-19 protocols, wearing masks and physically distancing from guests as much as possible; all, that is, except Lexi, Micah and Ariel.

By Kirthana Pillay

For the three concierges couldn’t breathe germs on you even if they wanted to: they’re robots.

Robot hospitality is not new – Japanese hotels have been deploying them for years and in 2015 Tokyo’s Henn’na, or ‘Strange’, hotel became the first to be fully staffed by machines.

Several robot-staffed Tokyo hotels are now using them to serve guests with mild COVID-19 symptoms.

But Hotel Sky, which launched this year, is the first in Africa to use automated attendants, a concept that could cause a stir in a country with one of the world’s worst jobless rates.

Unemployment is at 30.8%, according to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address last Thursday.

“It’ll never replace people, but it is going to change the space,” Paul Kelley, Hotel Sky Managing Director, told Reuters.

“I think that it is the future,” he said, adding that they planned to launch an offshoot in Cape Town next month.

Lexi, Micah and Ariel deliver room service, provide travel information and can drag up to 300kg of luggage from the marble-floored lobby to the rooms.

If the hotel receives a guest with COVID-19 symptoms, the robots could be deployed instead of people as a precaution.

Otherwise, “guests can choose whether they want to interact with staff members or make use of the self service, which is all controlled by their phone,” Herman Brits, the hotel’s general manager, said.

Steve Pinto, CEO of CTRL Robotics, which supplies the droids, said they could also scan customers’ facial expressions to determine how happy they were.

“It helps management to understand how customers are experiencing the facilities at the hotel,” he said, after getting a robot painted in a riotous orange and white pattern to take a selfie.

Reaction to the robots has been mixed. Even highly intelligent robots don’t always “get” what you want.

“I think the world is moving towards this digital space, but we are not used to it,” hotel guest Ernest Mulenga said. “The human touch is still something that is appealing to me.” (Editing by Tim Cocks and Mike Collett-White)

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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