Seattle may have their first store without a checkout, but Britain has already seen its first robot shop assistant fired.
One fear that most humans have of robots is that they’ll eventually make us redundant. However, one droid has already experienced what it’s like to get sacked from your first job.
The shop bot, affectionately named Fabio, managed to get employed only to get dropped after just one week.
Scottish ShopBot fired
During an experiment run by the Heriot-Watt University for the BBC’s Six Robots & Us, Scottish supermarket chain Margiotta trialed its first ‘ShopBot’ assistant.
The robot assistant, Fabio, was programmed to help customers locate hundreds of items in the company’s Edinburgh store.
At first, customers were delighted by the little machine’s greetings of ‘hello gorgeous’, high-fives, and occasional offers of hugs. Awww!
However, Fabio fell in to the same trap as many of us when having to deal with customers every day. It appears that he was laid off because he started giving unhelpful advice such as “it’s in the alcohol section” when asked where to find beer. Frankly, that’s some beautiful sarcasm from the artifical intelligence! How more realistic do you want a robotic shop assistant?
Additionally though, he also had difficulty understanding shoppers’ requests over the background noise. Again, I think that’s just his excuse. We’ve all done it.
In an attempt to deal with his surly people skills, the owners relegated Fabio to a side aisle. Here he was supposed to tempt customers with samples of pulled pork.
However, Margiotta soon came to suspect that customers actively tried to avoid Fabio. This damaged his performance stats as human staff managed to tempt 12 customers to try the meat every 15 minutes, Fabio only managed two.
I’m not crying, you’re crying!
When Franco told the little ShopBot that they would not be renewing his contract, Fabio unexpectedly asked him if he is angry with it. Uh-oh! Pass the tissues.
Dr. Oliver Lemon, director of the Interaction Lab at Heriot-Watt recounts how some of the employees started crying when the team packed Fabio back up. Furthermore, he went on to say that he was “surprised” by their reaction and how attached they’d become to Fabio.
Additionally, Dr. Lemon admitted he was expecting people working with Fabio to “feel threatened by it because it was competing for their job.”
Following this test-hire, Luisa Margiotta is skeptical that robots will replace human retail workers.
She explains that “customers love a personal interaction” and speaking (which Fabio wasn’t that silky-smooth at) is a bit part of that experience.
Workers also get to know regular customers intimately and “can have conversations on a daily a basis” she adds, explaining that it is unlikely robots could do the same anytime soon.
Elena Margiotta, who runs the chain of shops with father Franco and sister Luisa.
We thought a robot was a great addition to show the customers that we are always wanting to do something new and exciting. Unfortunately Fabio didn’t perform as well as we had hoped.
People seemed to be actually avoiding him. Conversations didn’t always go well. An issue we had was the movement limitations of the robot. It was not able to move around the shop and direct customers to the items they were looking for. Instead it just gave a general location, for example, ‘cheese is in the fridges’, which was not very helpful.
It is possible, I believe, that robots could assist with roles such as warehouse-based tasks, but I doubt they will ever eliminate the need for human interaction. I am confident there will be plenty of retail jobs available for people as and when they need them in the future.”
So, would you be happy having robotic shop assistants? How about robotic colleagues?
I am pretty sure I would get attached to a droid counterpart, I only spent a few weeks with Cozmo and it was hard handing him back.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.