Supermarket sacks Fabio the robot after a week of creeping people out
As a general rule of thumb, if your first week of work ends with you being wrapped in bubblewrap and shipped across the city, you’ve probably put a foot wrong somewhere along the line. In fact, the recipient of this particular P45 doesn’t even have feet: it’s a robot called Fabio, which spent some time working at Scottish independent grocery chain Margiotta before getting the push just a week into his new job.
It’s all part of the BBC show Six Robots and Us, which looks at how useful our current generation of robots are for everyday people. When Fabio arrived at the Edinburgh flagship store, bright-eyed and ready for work, customers initially found him a delightful novelty – even if it didn’t appear that the robot had read the HR handbook on customer relations, greeting customers with a cheeky “hello gorgeous” and offering hugs aplenty. Boundaries, Fabio. Boundaries.
But beyond telling jokes and offering high fives, it quickly emerged that Fabio wasn’t very good at his job. If you were looking for beer, for example, and asked Fabio where to find it, he’d respond “it’s in the alcohol section.” And that’s if he’d hear your question at all – ambient shopping noises meant that in many cases, Fabio just struggled to keep up.
All of this led to a demotion of sorts, with Fabio reduced to offering samples of pulled pork for customers to try. It was there that Fabio became less a robot, and more of a creepy mannequin, as customers weren’t tempted by his wares. Fabio shifted an average of two samples every 15 minutes – ten less than a human worker would.
Luisa Margiotta, one of the family members running the shop realised that Fabio was actively detracting from the customer experience. “Unfortunately Fabio didn’t perform as well as we had hoped. 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.”
Franco Margiotta, the company’s founder, knew what had to be done. Upon telling Fabio that his contract wouldn’t be renewed, the plucky robot passive-aggressively responded “are you angry?” A number of staff members were in tears as he was packed away and sent back to Heriot-Watt University.
Dr Oliver Lemon, director of the Interaction Lab at Heriot-Watt said that he was surprised by that reaction. “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.”
Hmmm, well perhaps if the robot were more of a threat, they might have been glad to see the back of it. Pity isn’t really the emotion you’d hope to engender in a dog-eat-dog competitive working environment.
After robots were fired for being terrible waiters in China, it does raise the question of whether they’re ready for prime time yet. At the very least, robots might want to start reading up on employment law, and consider forming their own trade union.
All images: BBC