Stop & Shop looks to normalize robots in public places

If you have a Stop & Shop convenience store in your area and you swing by in the near future you may see something unusual. There will probably be a very tall robot with googly eyes wandering the aisles, looking for trash or spills on the floors. His name is Marty and he really doesn’t do all that much work… yet. What Marty is really doing is working to “normalize the experience” of consumers running into robots in public spaces. (Boston Globe)

The $35,000 machine is one of about 500 robots that Stop & Shop’s owner, the Dutch company Ahold Delhaize, has deployed in some of its US grocery stores. And in the process, Ahold is doing its part to normalize robots in public places.

Thousands of people work with robots in factories or use robotic vacuum cleaners and mops at home to clean their floors.

But Marty is in the vanguard of an army of machines that will make casual run-ins with robots commonplace in store aisles, on sidewalks, and in other public places.

I don’t know about you, but that just sounds ominous to me. Any time you invoke the idea of “normalization” it implies that you’re trying to condition people to accept something new that falls outside the range of their previous experiences. Sometimes that turns out to be a good thing, and perhaps it will here also. Or maybe not.

As I noted above, Marty isn’t really doing very much at the moment. He doesn’t even pick up pieces of paper or wipe up spills. He just “identifies” them and summons a human to come to clean up the mess. (You’d think for $35K they could have at least given him a mop.) But mostly he’s there to interact with customers and get them used to the idea of seeing robots wandering around the store.

Some of Marty’s cousins are already doing quite a bit more. At some Walmart stores, robots are not only scrubbing the floors during low-traffic hours but taking inventory by scanning the UPC labels on all of the products on the shelves and in the warehouse. The company claims that this frees up human workers to interact with customers. That may be true, but how many people do you need to tell shoppers which aisle the canned peas are in? It seems that they’re going to have to start laying people off sooner or later.

One other scary example mentioned in the linked article is a new partnership between a robotics company in Oregon and Ford Motors. They’re launching a package delivery program where a self-driving van full of parcels carries a bipedal, humanoid robot. The van drives itself to the customer’s address and the robot takes the package from the van to the door.

What are people going to think when they see one of these mechanical monstrosities hopping out of a truck with their latest Amazon order? Perhaps not very much once they’ve been “normalized.” And then, when the day comes that the Artificial Intelligence wakes up and decides humans are a problem to be solved rather than the masters, just imagine what will be showing up at your door.