At Alibaba’s futuristic hotel, robots deliver towels and mix cocktails

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A staff member walks in the hallway during a demonstration to the media at Alibaba Group's futuristic FlyZoo hotel in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China January 22, 2019. (REUTERS)
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Men walk past Alibaba Group's futuristic FlyZoo hotel in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China January 22, 2019. (REUTERS)
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A staff member has his face scanned at an elevator during a demonstration to the media at Alibaba Group's futuristic FlyZoo hotel in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China January 22, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 23 January 2019

At Alibaba’s futuristic hotel, robots deliver towels and mix cocktails

  • Alibaba intends to build some other hotels but they will primarily be used by company staff on business trips to head offices in Beijing and Shanghai
  • Though most projects are not necessarily intended to be springboards to big forays in those industries, its grocery stores called Hema have been well received and now number about 100 nationwide

HANGZHOU, China: Gliding silently through Alibaba Group Holding Ltd’s futuristic “FlyZoo” hotel, black disc-shaped robots about a meter in height deliver food and drop off fresh towels.
The robots are part of a suite of high-tech tools that Alibaba says drastically cuts the hotel’s cost of human labor and eliminates the need for guests to interact with other people.
Formally opened to the public last month, the 290-room FlyZoo is an incubator for technology Alibaba wants to sell to the hotel industry in the future and an opportunity to showcase its prowess in artificial intelligence.
It is also an experiment that tests consumer comfort levels with unmanned commerce in China — a country where intrusive data-sharing technology is readily tolerated and often met with enthusiasm.
“It’s all about the efficiency of the service and the consistency of service, because the robots are not disturbed by human moods. Sometimes, we say we are not in the mood, but the system and the robot will always be in the mood,” said Andy Wang, CEO of Alibaba Future Hotel Management, the unit that oversees the hotel project.
Inside the hotel, softly-lit white panelled walls bring to mind the interiors of Hollywood spaceships. Guests check in at podiums that scan their faces, as well as passports or other ID. Visitors with a Chinese national ID can scan their faces using their smartphones to check in ahead of time.
Elevators scan guests’ faces again to verify which floor they can access and hotel room doors are opened with another face scan.
“It’s very quick and safe. I haven’t used it for a long time yet, but basically, I can be in my room in one minute,” said guest Tracy Li. Li added that safety was one of her priorities and she was pleased her room could only be entered with a scan of her face.
In the rooms, Alibaba’s voice command technology is used to change the temperature, close the curtains, adjust the lighting and order room service.
At the hotel’s restaurant, taller capsule-shaped robots deliver food that guests have ordered via the FlyZoo app while at a separate bar, a large robotic arm can mix more than 20 different types of cocktails. Facial recognition cameras add charges to the room rate automatically.
To check out, guests press a button on the app after which the room locks and they are automatically charged through Alibaba’s online wallet. Once this is done, the guests’ facial scan data is immediately erased from Alibaba’s systems, said Wang.

CELEBRATING ‘THE EMPTY’
FlyZoo — whose name derives from a pun in Chinese for ‘it’s a must to stay here’ — is located in the city of Hangzhou, 170 km southwest of Shanghai, and is within walking distance of Alibaba’s headquarters. Room fees start from 1,390 yuan ($205) a night.
It does employ humans, though Alibaba declined to specify how many. This includes chefs and cleaners as well as reception staff, who will assist with conventional check-in procedures for guests unwilling to have their faces scanned and want to use electronic key cards.
But advanced technology involving personal data — including facial recognition — has become increasingly common in China, where regulation is minimal and the government has rolled out public surveillance projects that use biometric data.
“For Chinese consumers, there’s this real glee in having exposure to things that seem like futuristic technology developments, and then beyond that, I think there’s a much greater comfort level with data sharing,” said Mark Natkin, managing director at Beijing-based technology consulting firm, Marbridge Consulting.
Alibaba has launched other highly automated projects for book stores and grocery stores.
Though most projects are not necessarily intended to be springboards to big forays in those industries, its grocery stores called Hema have been well received and now number about 100 nationwide.
The aim of such projects is twofold — develop AI and other high-tech expertise which will propel Alibaba’s e-commerce offerings forward, as well as develop new areas of business at a time when e-commerce revenue growth rates are slowing, in part due to the US-China trade war.
Alibaba intends to build some other hotels but they will primarily be used by company staff on business trips to head offices in Beijing and Shanghai.
Wang also acknowledged that FlyZoo still had plenty of issues that needed upgrading. Some of its services, for example, only worked for guests with a Chinese national ID.
But he said the initial reception from guests was encouraging.
“When they experience the robot and the voice butlers, they say ‘Wow!’. When they enter into the lobby they say ‘Wow!’,” said Wang. “It’s such a different lobby. It’s empty — but maybe it’s the kind of empty of the future.”


High-end rebrand makes life sweet for Japan’s ‘ice farmers’

Updated 18 August 2019

High-end rebrand makes life sweet for Japan’s ‘ice farmers’

  • Reinventing natural-made ice as a high-end artisanal product has helped revive the ice-farming trade
  • The blocks are sold to some of Tokyo’s high-end shaved ice shops as well as department stores

NIKKO, Japan: In a mountainous area north of Tokyo, a priest blows a conch shell as Yuichiro Yamamoto bows and thanks the nature gods for this year’s “good harvest”: natural ice.
Yamamoto is one of Japan’s few remaining “ice farmers,” eschewing the ease of refrigeration for open-air pools to create a product that is sold to high-end shaved ice shops in trendy Tokyo districts.
His trade had all but disappeared in recent decades, and the shaved ice or kakigori that is popular throughout Japan in summer had been produced with cheap machine-made ice.
But reinventing natural-made ice as a high-end artisanal product has helped revive the sector and save his firm.
“When I started making natural ice, I wondered how I should market it. I thought I needed to transform kakigori,” Yamamoto says at his ice-making field in the town of Nikko, north of Tokyo.
Yamamoto took over a traditional ice-making business 13 years ago in Nikko, where he also runs a leisure park.
At the time, shaved ice cost just ¥200 ($2) in the local area and Yamamoto, who was fascinated by traditional ice-making, knew he couldn’t make ends meet.
“My predecessor used to sell ice at the same price as the fridge-made one, which can be manufactured easily anytime throughout the year,” the 68-year-old says.
The situation made it “impossible” to compete he explains, as producing natural ice is labor intensive.
Instead he decided to transform cheap kakigori into a luxury dessert, made with his natural ice and high-grade fruit puree rather than artificially flavored syrup.
After months of research, he began producing his own small batches of artisanal kakigori.
“I put the price tag at ¥800 for a bowl of kakigori. I also priced the ice at ¥9,000 per case, which is six times more than my predecessor,” he says.
At first, there were days he threw away tons of ice because he could not find clients.
But one day buyers from the prestigious Mitsukoshi department store discovered his product, and began stocking it, turning around his fortunes.
Kakigori dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185) when aristocratic court culture flourished in the then-capital of Kyoto.
It was a rare delicacy reserved for the rich, with the ice naturally made and stored in mountainside holes covered with silver sheets.
It was only after 1883, when the first ice-making factory was built in Tokyo, that ordinary people could taste the dessert.
With the development of ice-making machines, the number of traditional ice makers dropped to fewer than 10 nationwide.
The story is one familiar to many traditional Japanese crafts and foodstuffs — with expensive and labor-intensive products losing ground as cheaper, machine-driven versions become available.
And making ice naturally is a grueling task.
The season begins in the autumn when workers prepare a swimming-pool-like pit by cultivating the soil and pouring in spring water.
Thin frozen initial layers are scraped away along with dirt and fallen leaves.
The ice-making begins in earnest in the winter, when water is poured in to freeze solid, but it must be carefully protected. Producers regularly scrape off snow that can slow the freezing process.
“I once spent 16 hours non-stop removing snow,” Yamamoto recalls.
And rain too can ruin the product, causing cracks that mean the whole batch has to be discarded.
“I check the weather forecast 10 times a day,” Yamamoto laughs.
Once the ice is 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) thick, which takes at least two weeks, workers begin cutting out rectangular blocks.
Each block, which weighs about 40 kilograms (88 pounds), is glided into an ice room filled with sawdust on a long bamboo slide.
The blocks are sold to some of Tokyo’s high-end shaved ice shops as well as department stores.
In the Yanaka district, more than 1,000 people queue up every day for a taste of kakigori made with natural ice produced by another ice-maker from Nikko.
Owner Koji Morinishi says the naturally made ice has a texture that is different from machine-made products.
“It feels very different when you shave it. It’s harder because it’s frozen over a long period of time,” explains Morinishi.
“It’s easier to shave really thin if the ice is hard. If not hard, it dissolves too quickly.”
Morinishi himself struggled when he first opened the kakigori shop, but has gradually built a cult following for his desserts topped with purees of mango, watermelon, peach or other fruit.
And Yamamoto’s firm has seen demand soar — he now harvests 160 tons a year and knows two new producers who have entered the market.
He says: “This business has become attractive and the ice makers are all busy.”