Even as the debate on whether robots will take away human jobs continues, an incident in a Scottish supermarket will probably have some answers. A robotic assistant employed by the Scottish supermarket has been sacked barely after a week of his appointment. Apparently, the assistant was confusing shoppers and scaring away business, reports The Times UK. Things started on a positive note, as the ShopBot won hearts of shoppers with its pleasant behaviour and cheerful personality. It was fondly named Fabia. However, soon, things changed and the robot’s overzealous handing out of meat samples proved to be counter-productive for the store.
The ShopBot has been developed by scientists at Heriot-Watt University. Fabio charmed shoppers with cheerful greetings and high fives. It was programmed with directions to hundreds of items in the store. And the robot initially won customers over with high-fives, jokes, hugs and greeting such as “hello gorgeous”. Elena Margiotta, who runs the chain with her father Franco and sister Luisa said that they thought a robot was a great addition to show the customers that we are always wanting to do something new and exciting. But soon, Fabio became confused and in the process, also confused shoppers. Reportedly, when asked for a particular drinks item, he told a customer vaguely “‘It’s in the alcohol section”. Similarly, when asked for cheese, Fabio would just give a general location like ‘cheese is in the fridge’, which wasn’t really helpful. Luisa says that 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,” she adds.
Eventually, they moved him away from sales and he was instructed to simply hand out samples of pulled pork. Here too, his enthusiasm to get people to sample led to customers actively avoiding him or leaving the shop. Finally, the owners decided to discontinue his service. Surprisingly, when the decision was conveyed to the ShopBot, Fabio, by Mr. Margiotta, the robot responded by asking “Are you angry?” This reaction brought tears to an employees eyes. The Times reports that the experiment, filmed at the flagship branch of the high-end supermarket chain Margiotta in Edinburgh, for BBC Six Robots and Us, may help allay fears that artificial intelligence is set to replace humans in the service industry.
Dr Oliver Lemon, director of the Interaction Lab at Heriot-Watt states that he was surprised at the fact that people working in the shop became attached to Fabio. He said they had thought that people would feel ShopBots like Fabio would take away their jobs. On the contrary, “When we had to pack it up and put it back in the box one of them started crying,” states Dr. Lemon. A Yahoo article quotes Luisa saying that robots can never replace humans. She explains that the customers love personal interactions. While robots can help out in the warehouses, human staff members are essential as they know regular customers well and have conversations on a regular basis.