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.”


  1. I've seen Marty--I had no idea it merely reported messes instead of cleaning them. I also had no idea how tempted I'd be to put Marty to the test. Very funny, Ed!

  2. Ed: What happens if you accidentally drop a trail of coupons leading it out of the loading dock!