Fears that robots could take the jobs of humans may be premature after Britain’s first cyborg shop assistant was sacked after a week of confusing customers.
In an experiment run by Heriot-Watt University for the BBC’s Six Robots & US, Scottish supermarket chain Margiotta was asked to trial ‘ShopBot’, who they affectionately named ‘Fabio’.
Fabio was programmed with directions to hundreds of items in the company’s flagship Edinburgh store and initially charmed customers with his ‘hello gorgeous’ greeting, playful high fives, jokes and offers of hugs.
“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.
But within just a few days, the robot was demoted after giving unhelpful advice such as ‘it’s in the alcohol section’ when asked where to find beer. He also struggled to understand shoppers’ requests because of the ambient background noise.
Banished to an aisle where he was only allowed to offer samples of pulled pork, Fabio started to alarm customers who went out of their way to avoid him.
While human staff managed to tempt 12 customers to try the meat every 15 minutes, Fabio only managed to two.
Luisa Margiotta, soon realized the robot was actually putting off shoppers.
“Unfortunately Fabio didn’t perform as well as we had hoped,” she said. “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.”
However when Franco Margiotta, who built the business from scratch, told the little robot they would not be renewing his contract, Fabio asked: “Are you angry?” and some staff were reduced to tears when he was packed away and shipped back to Heriot-Watt.
Dr Oliver Lemon, director of the Interaction Lab at Heriot-Watt, admits he was surprised by the reaction his invention got.
“One of things we didn't expect was the people working in the shop became quite attached to it.
“When we had to pack it up and put it back in the box one of them started crying.
“It was good in a way, because we thought the opposite would happen and they would 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.”
Asked whether robots could one day replace shop workers, Luisa Margiotta was sceptical.
She added: “We find our customers love a personal interaction and speaking to our staff is a big part of that.
“Our staff members know our regulars very well and can have conversations on a daily basis, and I doubt robots would be able to fulfil this.
“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.”