Persephone billed as the world’s first robot tour guide inside a cave, Persephone has welcomed visitors since mid-July to the Alistrati Cave in northern Greece.
The multilingual robot covers the first 150 meters of the cave that is open to the public. In the remaining 750 meters, a human guide takes over.
The robot was nicknamed Persephone inspired by the Greek myth that has Hades, the god of the underworld, kidnap her and take her to his abode through the gates to the underworld believed to lie under the Alistrati Cave.
The cave, located some 6km southeast of Alistrati town, ‘features’ impressive stalactites and stalagmites and welcomes some 45,000 visitors a year, including students as part of the education ministry’s environmental awareness program.
The robot can give its part of the tour in 33 languages and interact at a basic level with visitors in three languages. It can also answer 33 questions, but only in Greek.
Nikos Kartalis, the scientific director for the Alistrati site, had the idea of creating the robot when he saw one on TV guiding visitors at an art gallery.
Seventeen years later, “we got our funds, and the robot guide became a reality,” Kartalis said.
The robot was built by the National Technology and Research Foundation and cost 118,000 euros.
“We already have a 70 per cent increase in visitors compared to last year since we started using” the robot, said Kartalis.
“People are enthusiastic, especially the children, and people who had visited in the past are coming back to see the robot guide,” he noted.
“It is something unusual for them to have the ability to interact with their robot by asking it questions and the robot answering them,” he said.
The robot moves along a walkway, passing through an ornate landscape of stalactites and stalagmites. These varied formations can reach 15 meters tall, are seen throughout the cave’s nearly 1-kilometre walkway, and are accessible to people with limited mobility.
“This cave is one of the most beautiful, not only in Greece but in Europe, as well,” said Kartalis.
“It has stalactites and stalagmites in many shapes and colours, even red,” he noted.
Kartalis said the cave was 3 million years old and was first explored in 1974 by the Hellenic Speleological Society and Austrian speleologists. It opened to visitors in 1998.
With a white body, blackhead, and two luminous eyes, Persephone moves on wheels, guiding visitors to the first three of eight stops along the walkway.
Persephone is not the only technology used inside the cave. A cellphone app in which a visitor, scanning a QR code, can see the Alistrati Beroni. That’s a microorganism that is only found in this cave, in the vast mounds of bat droppings left behind when the cave was opened, and the bats migrated elsewhere.
Evdokia Karafera is one of the tour guides who partners with the robot.
“It is helpful because it speaks many languages. There’s just a little delay in the touring,” she said.
“Most find it fascinating, especially the children, and find it interesting that it speaks many languages.”
Karafera insisted, however, that human tour guides cannot be completely replaced.
“Robots, at some point in the future, will take over many jobs. But I believe they cannot replace humans everywhere,” she said. “(Visitors say) ‘the robot is interesting, original, but can’t substitute for the human contact with the guide and the conversation we can have on the way back.’”