Britain’s first robot shop assistant, affectionately named Fabio, got a job and then got sacked — after just one week.
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. However, it didn’t last very long at its job.
What is my purpose?
Affectionately named Fabio, the robot 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. However, Fabio was laid off after only a week of work for giving unhelpful advice such as “it’s in the alcohol section” when asked where to find beer and because he had difficulty understanding shoppers’ requests over the background noise.
“We thought a robot was a great addition to show the customers that we are always wanting to do something new and exciting,” said Elena Margiotta, who runs the chain of shops with father Franco and sister Luisa. “Unfortunately Fabio didn’t perform as well as we had hoped.”
In an attempt to deal with his limited people skills, the owners relegated Fabio to a side aisle where he was to tempt customers with samples of pulled pork. However, Margiotta soon came to suspect that customers actively tried to avoid Fabio — who can’t relate to that? While human staff managed to tempt 12 customers to try the meat every 15 minutes, Fabio only managed two.
“People seemed to be actually avoiding him,” says Margiotta. “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,” she adds.
But it’s undeniable that Fabio made an impression with the team. When Franco told the little ShopBot that they would not be renewing his contract, Fabio unexpectedly asked him if he is angry with it. 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, saying he was “surprised” by their reaction and how attached the humans had become to Fabio.
The results are very unexpected, Dr. Lemon admitting he was expecting people working with Fabio to “feel threatened by it because it was competing for their job.”
“In actual fact they thought it was an enhancement because it was able to deal with frequent and boring requests, like customers constantly asking where things are, which I think they found quite helpful.”
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.
“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,” she confesses. “I am confident there will be plenty of retail jobs available for people as and when they need them in the future.”