Sunday, February 16, 2020

Something short of Skynet

I have seen the future, and its name is Marty.

Before you start your usual presumptuous misgendering, be aware that Marty isn’t a “he.” Marty is a wheeled robot, about the size and shape of a grandfather clock with ears and a unibrow, that has been deployed in 325 Stop & Shop (and 172 Giant) supermarkets in the Northeast.

Its mission? To perform a job no human, no matter how intensive the training, could ever hope to do: holler for a mop when a shopper breaks a jar or bottle.

That’s right. Marty was designed to roam up and down supermarket aisles, looking for spills to report. When it finds one, it takes pictures and relays them to the store’s courtesy desk, prompting an emulated female voice to announce, for instance, “Cleanup in Aisle 8.”

Skynet, it isn’t.

Marty’s designers apparently ruled out making the robot resemble a person. Besides the potential to unsettle adults, a human-like droid on wheels would probably frighten small children half to death—resulting in, um, further spills.

But these august thinkers unfortunately went too far in the other direction.

For starters, Marty has googly eyes resembling how some Downton Abbey fans mercilessly describe poor Lady Edith. Then there’s the robot’s perpetual smile-shaped label, which, were Marty flesh and blood, would tempt most of us (me, anyway) to smack it upside its head till the smile faded.

To be fair, it was perhaps inevitable that these supermarkets’ staffers would resent a machine that, for all its electronic wizardry, merely advises that there’s a spill. Heaven forbid it deign to actually clean up the mess. It doesn’t help that in an age of increased automation, every pricey soldier sent forth in this 500-strong robot legion invariably means less money to pay staffers to work the mops. And Marty needs no sick days.

Elena, my wife, witnessed how adroitly Marty has made a lasting home in staffers’ hearts. The robot, it seems, had reported a spill in an aisle she was shopping one day. One young store employee was nearby, and he came upon the robot—and the “spill” it had urgently reported. “Oh, you’re riiight,” he said with a withering sneer, “there’s a coupon on the floor. Sixty thousand dollars to find a coupon!

But Marty isn’t merely superfluous. Besides the myriad chips populating its circuit boards, there’s one more chip—on its shoulder. In short, it can be a real jerk.

I learned this two weeks ago while I was picking up a few items at our local Stop & Shop. Marty, dead ahead, was heading down the center of the aisle so slowly that I supposed it had wheeled over a puddle of molasses. Carrying only a basket that day, I had room to pass Marty on the left. But I wasn’t the one with the problem. That description belonged to a college-age stockwoman who was steering a platform truck stacked with boxes into the aisle, and saw ample room to pass on Marty’s other side. One glance told me she’d have just enough room to squeeze past.

She indeed would...but Marty had other ideas. I stared incredulously as the robot paused, then shifted right to effectively close the space and force the staffer to halt the cart and wait for Its Highness to pass. The way she rolled her eyes told me this wasn’t the first time.

Then there’s the reality that robots need maintenance, and if its sensors get somehow covered in, say, Nutella, it might not do its job as well. I suspect that giving Marty verbal warnings, with or without its union rep present, won’t be very effective.

Elena tells me, time and again, that I don’t need to take every crisis into my own hands. (Well, maybe she doesn’t, but she ought to.) After several times I’ve had to slow down because Little Lord Fauntlerobot has to go first, though, I’ve decided it’s time we had it out.

Margaret Atwood, the renowned military strategist, wrote that “War is what happens when language fails,” and she could have been talking about Marty. Any wheeled robot that doesn’t understand a basic, first-grade English command such as “Get out of my way, you insolent mishmosh of ineffectual detritus” needs a few teachable dents from a low-tech crowbar.

I don’t expect to lose against a machine with no arms, little wheels for feet and a ground speed of a quarter-mile an hour. It doesn’t even know how to call for help, so it should be a fair fight. I’m guessing that if I can flip the big galoot over, it will even learn its first word: “Mommmmmmy!”

But for all I know, it might actually have some sort of laser defenses. If I fail in my duty, I might not utter a cry. All the same, you’ll hear about it throughout the store.

“Cleanup in Aisle 5.”

Sunday, August 6, 2017

And nobody’s kicking your seat

The airline industry’s future is up in the air, in more ways than one. People getting dragged down the aisle, being challenged to fistfights and suffering body-slams—and that’s just what happens to the employees. If you’re a passenger, your odds of reaching YouTube before your destination are greater than ever. And don’t even mention that poor rabbit.

You might be thinking it couldn’t get any worse…unless, for instance, the TSA’s website starts posting hi-def images of travelers’ full-body scans. But you would be wrong. As surprising as this might sound, the airlines have been taking notice of their customers’ dissatisfaction. And they’ve been putting the best technical minds money can buy toward, in their words, “reimagining air travel.”

Before you start shrugging about the return of the in-flight meal, leg room that accommodates human legs, and overhead compartments that actually holds reasonably sized carry-on baggage, stop right there. You are on the right track, though, in that the industry is looking toward the past for its embrace of the future.

How far into the past? Think Star Trek.

Any Trekkies reading this important news feature have already figured out where the industry is heading: teleportation. Haven’t heard of it? You have—in the form of “Beam me up, Scottie.” Scientists in the past few years learned how to do a full scan of an object, transmit it elsewhere and recreate it using a 3D printer. But that’s only for objects. The airline industry’s aim: to teleport you, your luggage and any carry-ons from one destination to another.

You get to avoid the TSA’s security gate, the wailing children in the waiting area, the incessant delays and everything else you hate about air travel. The airline saves on fuel, peanuts and attorney fees. What’s not to like?

Here’s what. It might look like a win-win, but remember what companies we’re dealing with. Leaked documents of a few airlines’ “Conditions of Carriage” offer a glimpse of what’s really in store—with quotes from the actual pilfered documents.

“Wardrobe malfunction” redefined. Teleportation sounds pretty spiffy, but it apparently has limitations to consider—especially if you plan to go directly to an important meeting from the airport. Take, for instance, this contract stipulation:

“Not responsible for mutations in clothing worn during transport that may result from our circuitry’s occasional inability to reconstruct snaps, straps, clasps, zippers and garments manufactured using complex fabrics such as polyester, elastic or rayon.”

That dress looks like you—oh, it is. Airlines promise to get you from one airport to another, but mutations in the clothes you’re wearing aren’t your greatest concern—especially if you’ve seen The Fly. In fact, since the very molecules that comprise you, your clothing and other belongings are dematerialized, transported and then reassembled, you can’t be absolutely sure that those distinct entities of human, clothes, cellphone, laptop and other personal effects will properly recompose:

“Passengers using the TPortTM system no longer need to remove shoes, belts, phones and other personal effects for TSA personnel. Prior to transport, however, passengers must sign a waiver indemnifying TPortTM and [this airline] from any amalgamation of clothing, electronics, and personal effects that might occur in the recomposition of items transported. Melding of personal items with passenger warrants a full refund and a coupon to be applied toward the first $100 of medical care.”

I’m doing what I do best, why? One benefit to bypassing traditional air travel is avoiding the myriad ads that bombard us in the waiting area, before takeoff and upon disembarking. But sorry, somebody has to pay for all this brilliant technology. “TeleSkyTM reserves the right to implant video and audio content into passengers’ cerebral cortexes during recomposition,” reads one policy.

Who cares if you get to your destination more quickly, right? It might get a bit annoying, though, when you can’t say the word “skies” without speaking the word “friendly” before it. At inopportune times, you might break out in song, specifically airline jingles. (Attend no further funerals.) Worst of all, you might repeatedly use the word “southwest” when giving directions, even if you intend the person you’re instructing to go the opposite way.

One of you was too many. Some smarty-pants passengers double-book—that is, reserving seats on two flights to a destination at similar times—and cancel one before the flights depart. Teleportation, though, could make things complicated for anyone inclined to game the system:

“In cases of multiple booking, no such last-minute shocks to our reservation system need occur. Our de-/rematerialization protocol enables us to duplicate a passenger’s molecular structure upon request. This enables us to teleport a single passenger more than once, in parallel, such as to fulfill conflicting engagements. We reserve the right to multiply fares in accordance with a given number of replications per passenger.”

You might soon be longing for a return to the way things were, but sorry—even the airlines couldn’t afford to keep up such service forever. Traveling by jet will eventually become as much a memory as the stagecoach, which shook up their passengers but still dropped them off in one piece.

One positive note is that you no longer need worry about lost luggage. In one form or another, it will arrive with you. Weren't you wishing for a new set of wheels?