Persephone presented as the world’s first robot-guide inside a cave, Persephone has been welcoming visitors since mid-July in the Alistrati cave, in northern Greece.
The multilingual robot travels the first 150 meters of the cave 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 Hades, the god of the underworld, kidnaps him and takes him to his abode through the gates of the underworld believed to be under the Alistrati cave.
The cave, located about 6 km southeast of the town of Alistrati, “features” impressive stalactites and stalagmites and welcomes some 45,000 visitors a year, including students as part of the environment of the Ministry of Education.
The robot can give its part of the tour in 33 languages and interact at a basic level with visitors in three languages. He can also answer 33 questions, but only in Greek.
Nikos Kartalis, the scientific director of the Alistrati site, had the idea to create the robot when he saw one on television guiding visitors to 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 Foundation for Technology and Research and cost 118,000 euros.
“We already have a 70 percent increase in the number of visitors compared to last year since we started using the robot,” Kartalis said.
“People are enthusiastic, especially children, and people who have visited in the past are coming back to see the robot guide,” he noted.
“It’s something unusual for them to be able to interact with their robot by asking it questions and the robot answers them,” he said.
The robot moves along a walkway, crossing a landscape adorned with stalactites and stalagmites. These varied formations can reach 15 meters in height, are visible all along the almost one kilometer walkway of the cave and are accessible to people with reduced mobility.
“This cave is one of the most beautiful, not only in Greece but also in Europe,” Kartalis said.
“It has stalactites and stalagmites in many shapes and colors, even red,” he noted.
Kartalis said the cave was 3 million years old and was first explored in 1974 by the Hellenic Society of Speleology and Austrian Speleologists. It opened its doors to visitors in 1998.
With a white body, a black dot and two glowing eyes, Persephone moves on wheels, guiding visitors to the first three of the eight stops along the catwalk.
Persephone is not the only technology used inside the cave. A mobile phone application in which a visitor, by scanning a QR code, can see the Alistrati Beroni. It’s a microorganism that can only be 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 partner with the robot.
“It’s useful because he speaks several languages. There is just a bit of a delay in the tour, ”she said.
“Most find him fascinating, especially children, and find it interesting that he speaks many languages.”
Karafera insisted, however, that human tour guides cannot be completely replaced.
“Robots, at some point in the future, will have a lot of jobs. But I believe they can’t replace humans everywhere, ”she said. “(Visitors say) ‘the robot is interesting, original, but cannot replace the human contact with the guide and the conversation we may have on the way home.'”