Well, I’ve finally met Marty, after hearing about him/her/it for a while. Marty, you see, is a robot that now haunts, or will soon haunt, the aisles of 414 Stop & Shop stores in the Northeast and 338 other supermarkets owned by Ahold Delhaize USA.
But I didn’t go there just to see him/her/it. In fact, this wasn’t even my local Stop & Shop, although the sign outside assures me that the place is super. Marty and I met up at another, bigger and presumably superer store in another town. (I know it was superer because, while the Dairy department at my local store is only about a mile from the front door, in Marty’s store it’s 2 or 3 miles away.)
Anyway, Marty (a product of Badger Technologies) is tall and slim — over 6 feet, I’d say — and sort of gray, with blue lights flashing.
He/she/it moves very slowly — slower than an elderly shopper with a walker, no doubt to assure that he/she/it won’t crash into an elderly shopper with a walker — and gives out some relatively discrete beeps to warn people of its presence.
He/she/it has a pair of giant googly eyes that don’t move, so they don’t seem to be connected to any kind of intelligence, artificial or otherwise.
I suppose they’re there to make him/her/it seem more human-like and more friendly, maybe even cute — if it’s possible for a slow-moving pillar of plastic that’s full of transistors and printed circuits and computer chips, and probably a couple of small cooling fans, to be considered cute.
Is Marty a gimmick? Well, yes. He/she/it is certainly a conversation piece and a selfie magnet, and children seem to like him/her/it. But Marty also has a function or three.
No, he/she/it does not mop the floors, but instead patrols the aisles for any spillage that might constitute a slip or trip hazard, looks for out-of-stock items on the shelves, and checks that the posted prices are correct.
Officially, Marty’s role is to perform those few dreary tasks so that the human help can spend more time interacting with customers.
Unofficially, that must mean that every incarnation of Marty will make some number of humans redundant, just as what I call the “layoff lanes,” where you donate your labor to the store by scanning your own orders, make a certain number of human employees unnecessary.
Anyway, I decided to perform a test. If Marty is facing you and you come within, say, 6 feet of him/her/it, he/she/it will stop. So I blocked his/her/its way and he/she/it did the obvious thing, stopping and turning right, into an aisle where I already knew there was one lonely cucumber on the floor.
Sure enough, Marty used his/her/its rotating radar or sonar or microwave or ultrasound or some other kind of scanner, which also flashes a blue light, and soon detected the offending gourd (Cucumis sativus, to be specific).
I know that because almost immediately there came over the PA system the message, “Cleanup needed in Produce,” in a voice that wasn’t synthetic but may very well have been recorded.
No need to fear Marty; I assume that he/she/it is the future. Just so we recognize that his/her/its real purpose is to replace people. But in a cute way.
Reach Glenn Richter at email@example.com.