On Sunday, Boston Globe writer Scott Kirsner wrote an article typical of most tech reporting: “Would you Let a Robot Pick Out Your Breakfast Cereal?“. It brimmed with enthusiasm about how the Robot Revolution is coming to the grocery store near you, thanks to innovations from several local companies.
He begins with a history lesson about how Clarence Saunders created the modern grocery story, turning a mom-and-pop shop that employed perhaps one clerk, to a giant enterprise that employs a multitude of people. So far, so good.
Then Mr. Kirsner talked about new technologies that want to revolutionize the grocery business, which has margins thinner than a human hair. They would use robots that stock shelves and pick groceries for customers. In essence, we would be going back to the future by replacing human clerks with mechanical ones. Not so good.
Having spent my career in high tech marketing, I’m probably more supportive of local technology companies than the next person. But, really, these supermarket robots have to make good market sense in terms of both functionality and meeting a real need.
The two innovations Mr. Kirsner wrote about may actually work but I think they probably won’t—or at least not completely—for reasons both serious and, well, not.
The Supermarket Robots
In terms of food shopping, I like picking my own groceries. I read labels to eliminate bad additives from my diet. I select meat, fish and poultry based on how fresh it looks, not just what price it’s selling for. I choose this salmon fillet, not that one. I pick up the steak with good marbling over the one with more fat. I pass by wilted produce and select the things that are fresh and green. And I don’t trust a robot to do that for me.
Also, I like being able to ask a knowledgeable employee what aisle the Worcestershire Sauce is in, where I can find the dried cranberries, or why there’s no buttermilk. When I shop at Market Basket, I not only get a quick answer, the clerk walks me right to the item I’m searching for. I know the fish guy at Market Basket by first name and he wraps exactly the piece I want. The woman in the bakery section slices the fresh loaf of Tuscan bread for me. What could a robot do for me that would improve on that kind of service?
Oh, right. This wave of technology doesn’t improve the customer experience; it’s all about saving money. The customer can go hang. Or, more likely, steam with frustration at being unable to get assistance. I don’t want to hear a mechanical voice say, “I’m sorry, ma’am. Those are not the potatoes you seek.”
The Mechanical Houseboy
Next, Mr. Kirsner shows us a grocery-carrying robot that will follow a shopper down the street like your personal BB-8, carrying your groceries for you. Right. Just what we all need: a mechanical houseboy to do the heavy lifting.
When we lived in Brooklyn, I walked to the supermarket with a folding shopping cart. Every supermarket cart had a pair of S-hooks on the front. You hung your own cart on the S-hooks, did your shopping, put the bags in your cart and wheeled it home.
The high-tech innovation is a pair of robots from Piaggio Fast Forward called Gita and Kilo. The difference between a robot and a shopping cart? Well, Gita can hold about a case of wine. My old red shopping cart—which is still in my basement—carries a lot more than that. Sure, I had to pull it, so one hand wasn’t free but, still, that’s a trade-off I would make any day.
Plus, I can’t help thinking that the engineering geniuses behind these grocery robots did not take full account of human nature. I imagine what would happen in a less-than-upscale neighborhood, with a gang swooping down and carrying off the Gita as it trundles along, small and vulnerable, behind a shopper,
I wonder what would happen when I get home and unloaded the groceries.Can Kilo handle a third-floor walkup or would i have to leave it in the lobby and carry the groceries up one bag at a time? Does Gita automatically return to the store? What happens if I decided to keep it? What if those street thieves grabbed it on the way back and held it for ransom? We’ve all seen supermarket shopping carts abandoned on the street, sometimes in drainage ditches. If Gita and Kilo were discarded, that would make for some pretty expensive losses.
When Amazon first announced its concept of delivery drones, one wag commented that it would be “Skeet shooting, only with prizes.” I giggle as I imagine Kilo squealing in alarm like R2-D2 as it rolls frantically down an alley, attempting to escape from robot-hunting teenagers. You have to admit, that is funny.
The Gita and the Kilo would be confined to big cities, of course, and that limits the size of the market. I now drive to a supermarket and I take my groceries right to the car. Walking there and back with a little blue robot behind me is just not an option.
It’s the Economy, Folks
Finally, of course, Mr. Kirsner doesn’t pose the big question, the one tech writers so seldom ask: what’s the impact of these supermarket robots on the economy? Will Gita be a good robot that improves the human experience or a bad robot that puts people out of work?
It strikes me that technology writers might be less sanguine about the latest hot development in AI and robotics if they were writing headlines like, “AI Analyzes New Technology Faster and Smarter Than Journalists,” Oops, we’ve already seen something like that. Or, perhaps, “Technology Pubs to Improve Profitability by Replacing Writers with Robots.”
What do you think?
More tomorrow on AI and its impact on the economy.