Robots are integral to manufacturing. There’s a growing trend to let robots out of their cages, thanks to sensors that help cobots (coworking robots) recognize human beings and keep them safe from uncontrolled movements.
Factory workers dress robots up in caps and vests, give them pet names, and appreciate their ability to take on physically demanding and tedious jobs.
But robots are showing up outside manufacturing, too. And they’re not always as welcome.
Consider Marty at grocery chain Stop and Shop. This robot, called “goofy looking” by the New Food Economy, roams the store aisles, alerting human workers to things that need to be cleaned up. Human workers rush over, often just to find a twist tie or possibly a grocery cart.
Marty is goofy looking, we have to admit, with big googly eyes and blue lights. He costs $35,000, which could be the annual salary of a human worker, and his human coworkers say he’s more of an obstacle than a help.
Apparently, Marty can’t judge whether an object on the floor is worth calling a human for cleanup. Human workers say he will circle a fallen grape stem continuously, bleating for help, until a human being comes to pick it up.
Shoppers wonder about Marty, too. Are these robots, 500 of them across the nation, really helping clean up, or are they spying on customers?
Store owners say that Marty is there to improve the shopping experience. They also say that Marty allows human workers to spend more time with customers. These are fairly standard claims. Walmart says the same about its cleaning and stocking robots.
Marty is already programmed to scan shelves and identify out of stocks. Store owners have also suggested that Marty might begin to do cleanup. They also say that the robots “collect safety data.”
Some customers “freak out,” according to grocery clerks quoted by the Washington Post.
Others physically attack the robots, try to take selfies, or jump in front of them to see what happens.
As retail robots become more common, the people around them might get over their negative reactions to the Martys of the world.