Published: February 27, 2020 4:34:25 pm
By Michael Corkery
When Tina Sorg first saw the robot rolling through her Giant supermarket in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, she said to herself, “That thing is a little weird.”
Programmed to detect spills and debris in the aisles, the robot looked like an inkjet printer with a long neck.
“It needed personality,” said Sorg, 55, who manages the store’s beer and wine department.
So, during one overnight shift, she went out to a nearby arts and craft store, brought back a large pair of googly eyes and, when no one was looking, affixed them on the top of the robot.
The eyes were a hit with executives at global grocery company Ahold Delhaize, which owns the Giant and Stop & Shop supermarket chains. They are now a standard feature on the company’s nearly 500 robots across the United States.
How this supermarket robot got its goofy eyes touches on a serious question: Will robots with friendly faces and cute names help people feel good about devices that are taking over an increasing amount of human work?
Robots are now working everywhere from factories to living rooms. But the introduction of robots to public settings like the grocery store is fueling new fears that humans are being pushed out of jobs. McKinsey, the consulting firm, says the grocers could immediately reduce “the pool of labor hours” by as much as 65 per cent if they adopted all the automation technology currently available.
“Margin pressure has made automation a requirement, not a choice,” McKinsey said in a report last year.
Retailers said their robot designs were not explicitly meant to assuage angst about job losses. Still, companies of all sizes — from Carrefour in Spain to Schnucks supermarket in St. Louis — are investing in tens of thousands of friendly looking robots that are quickly upending human work.
Most of the retail robots have just enough human qualities to make them appear benign but not too many to suggest they are replacing humans entirely.
“It’s like Mary Poppins,” said Peter Hancock, a professor at the University of Central Florida who has studied the history of automation. “A spoonful of sugar makes the robots go down.”
Perhaps no other retailer is dealing as intensely with the sensitivities around automation as Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, with about 1.5 million workers. The company spent many months working with the firm Bossa Nova and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University to design a shelf-scanning robot that it hopes both employees and customers will feel comfortable with.
This robot was designed without a face because its developers did not want customers to think they could interact with the device. But many of the robots have names, given to them by store staff. Some also wear name badges.
“We want the associates to have an attachment to it and want to protect it,” said Sarjoun Skaff, a co-founder and the chief technology officer at Bossa Nova. Walmart said it planned to deploy the robots in 1,000 stores by the end of the year, up from about 350.
At the Walmart Supercenter in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, on the Pennsylvania border, employees named the robot WALL-E — a choice partly inspired by the Pixar film that depicts a trash-collecting robot on a deserted planet.
The robot can work 365 days a year, scanning shelves with high-resolution cameras tabulating out-of-stock items. It takes a short break between shifts to recharge its batteries in a docking station.
WALL-E completes its route with no assistance from humans, except when it becomes stuck on the rug in the pharmacy section. When this happens, the store manager, Tom McGowan, gets an alert on his phone, sometimes in the middle of the night. He then calls the store to tell someone to free the robot.
McGowan said that he referred to WALL-E as a he but that other employees thought of the robot as a she.
“I’ll say, ‘Where is he at?’” McGowan said. “But they say, ‘Where is she at?’”
Tally, a robot that cruises the aisles of Giant Eagle grocery stores in Pennsylvania and Ohio, has digital cartoonlike eyes that blink but perform no actual function. A blue computer screen flashes messages informing customers what the robot is doing: “Stock check!”
Jeff Gee, a co-founder of Simbe Robotics, the firm that developed Tally, said the eyes were meant to help customers feel comfortable with the device, particularly in areas of the country “where a lot of people have never experienced robots in the wild before.”
Simbe is short for Simulated Being. A spokeswoman said the company’s mission was to “foster a harmonious relationship between robots and humans.” One of Simbe’s biggest financial backers is Venrock, a firm which was founded as the venture capital arm of the Rockefeller family.
Some robots, the tech companies say, are blending seamlessly into the stores. Walmart and malls operated by the Simon Property Group are using self-driving floor scrubbers that have a steering wheel, a cushy seat and even a cup holder — features that give the impression that these scrubbers are meant for humans settling in for a long shift of floor washing with a coffee at their side. The scrubber can be driven manually to set the routes it will take through the store. Then, a worker needs only to touch a screen, and the device takes off on its own. About 80 per cent of the time, there is no human at the wheel.
Before deploying the device in stores, Brain Corp, the San Diego firm that developed the device, tested customer reactions to a driverless machine. The humans, the company learned, were not missed.
“The biggest reaction we got” to the driverless machine, said Phil Duffy, Brain Corp’s vice president of product management, “is no reaction at all.”
Retailers say the robots are good for their workers. They free up employees from mundane and sometimes injury-prone jobs like unloading delivery trucks to focus on more fulfilling tasks like helping customers.
At the Walmart Supercenter in Phillipsburg, some workers have put their personal touches on automation that’s changing their jobs.
The store’s newly installed FAST unloader automatically sorts boxes arriving at the store and reduced the number of workers needed to empty a delivery truck from eight to four. The task now takes employees about two-thirds the time it used to, springing them from the often sweltering confines of the back room to spend time ferrying inventory out to the aisles and dealing with customers. Walmart says the new unloader has reduced turnover in the back room.
The employees named the unloader Grover and placed a plush blue puppy on top of it as a kind of mascot.
“It’s the way of the world,” said Lori Vogelin, who works in the back room in Phillipsburg.
Automation has not yet reduced Walmart’s overall workforce, but executives acknowledge that the number of positions in the stores will eventually decline through attrition. The company says it was retraining many of its employees to work in its e-commerce and health care businesses or even helping them prepare for jobs outside Walmart.
“There is never going to be this great cataclysm of job loss,” Hancock, the University of Central Florida professor, said. “It is going to be death by a thousand cuts or death by a thousand robots.”
Throughout history, Hancock said, workers have attacked technologies when they feel threatened, like the 19th-century Luddites, who destroyed machinery in textile mills.
“If you push too hard, too far, people transfer their anger to the technology, and they revolt,” he said.
Sorg, who has worked at Giant for 14 years, isn’t worried.
At first, she was unsure how her bosses would react to the googly eyes. But the robot’s developers at Badger Technologies loved them.
A spokeswoman for Badger said one of the supermarket’s executives remarked that robot reminded him of an employee named Marty, who was “tall, thin, reserved and not very emotional.” Since then, the robot has been known as Marty.
While others might worry about robots taking jobs, Sorg said: “I haven’t put much thought into it. I am just fascinated by the whole thing.” For Halloween, she dressed up as Marty to go trick-or-treating with her grandchildren.
Last month, Stop & Shop celebrated Marty’s first anniversary with a series of parties at its stores around the Northeast.
The company said the parties were partly a chance for Stop & Shop to explain to customers how robots are improving the cleanliness of its aisles.
Marty is equipped with sensors that detect spills and then trigger an automated announcement over the store’s loudspeaker beckoning employees to clean up the mess.
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At the many “Marty Parties,” there were sheet cakes decorated with the robot’s signature eyes and goody bags containing robots fashioned from juice boxes and applesauce containers.
An older customer in Newburgh, New York, brought the robot a can of WD-40 lubricant as a gift. In Queens and on Long Island, children made cards, drew pictures and composed poems for Marty.
“Wishing you a Happy First Birthday,” one young customer wrote to the robot. “May you have many more.”
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