Innovation

Robot fired from Scottish grocery store for poor performance

Fabio, a SoftBank Pepper robot, struggled to answer simple questions and confused some customers.

Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • A robot named Fabio was fired from Scottish supermarket chain Margiotta after it failed to assist customers properly and created confusion.
  • Fabio's firing could lend weight to the argument that AI and robotics aren't quite ready to handle customer service in some industries.

A shop robot named Fabio was recently fired from Scottish supermarket chain Margiotta after failing to perform in a helpful manner and confusing some customers, as originally reported by The Telegraph.

Despite its programming, the robot was unable to assist customers in finding the products they were looking for, and many customers ended up going out of their way to avoid it, The Telegraph reported. The incident could be evidence that certain industries or cultures aren't yet ready for artificial intelligence (AI) or robotics-based customer service.

Fabio, as the robot was named by the store team, was a custom version of SoftBank's Pepper robot, programmed by Heriot-Watt University to be able to find certain product SKUs in the store, The Telegraph reported. It would also tell jokes or greet customers in lively manner (e.g. "Hello, gorgeous.").

SEE: Hiring kit: Robotics engineer (Tech Pro Research)

The experiment was put together by the BBC for a series called Six Robots & Us, which sought to take a look at the various ways humans and robots interact. As part of the experiment, Fabio was placed in Margiotta's flagship store in Edinburgh.

"We thought a robot was a great addition to show the customers that we are always wanting to do something new and exciting," Elena Margiotta, who helps run the grocery chain with her family, told The Telegraph.

However, Fabio often had difficulty understanding questions that it was asked due to the noise in the store. Or, if it heard the question, it might provide too vague of an answer to be of any help, The Telegraph reported. It soon became clear to shoppers that it was easier to just ask a human employee.

Still, the company held onto Fabio for a little bit, allowing the robot to give out meat samples to customers. But when customers began actively avoiding the aisle that Fabio was occupying, the grocery chain decided to pull the plug on its robot experiment, The Telegraph reported.

While part of the problem was that Fabio simply couldn't do its job, another issue could have been cultural. As noted by our sister site ZDNet, similar Pepper robots are in use in Japan and some tech-friendly stores in California, with some positive impact. It could be that Scottish culture, or the fairly traditional grocery industry, just weren't yet ready for a robot grocery workers. But until AI and robotics can address needs across different industries and cultures, they may not reach broad adoption.

Also see

Softbank Pepper Robot

Softbank's Pepper robot.

Image: Katie Collins, CNET

About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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