Ah, the South, homeland of sweet tea, fried chicken, mountain-high biscuits and… advanced artificial intelligence that works at the local grocery store alongside the boring old human employees.
A few weeks ago, the small town of La Follette, Tennessee—population 7,000—welcomed a new resident named Marty. An “in-store robot helper,” Marty is a slender gray robot developed by Badger Technologies in nearby Lexington, Kentucky, and he “works” full-time at the local outpost of the grocery store chain Food Lion. His obelisk-esque frame mounted atop a rolling black base, googly eyes popping out of his head and a nametag proudly affixed to his chest, Marty rolls around the grocery store all day long, scanning shelves for out-of-stock products, ensuring items are priced correctly, and vigilantly monitoring aisles for any possible hazards to shoppers.
“He's fun and is not something you necessarily expect to see in a grocery store,” says Matthew Harakal, manager of media and communications at the grocery chain with about 1,100 locations throughout the South. Referring to Marty as “part of the Food Lion team,” Harakal adds that many of the stores customers stop, introduce themselves, and take selfies with the robot, who uses sophisticated artificial intelligence and laser imaging technology on his daily rounds.
Every day, Marty performs 12 sweeps of the grocery store, checking aisles for any “slip-and-fall hazards” like a broken bottle of tomato sauce or a puddle left by an umbrella, alerting the human staff if he finds anything amiss. The robot also scans the products for sale, making sure that their marked prices line up with how much they’ll ring up for at the registers and taking note of any shelves that need to be restocked.
Marty is just the latest example of a burgeoning line of in-store robots. In 2016, a Target store in downtown San Francisco trialed Tally, a shelf-scanner that—sans nametag, sans eyes—frankly lacks Marty’s approachable charm. Last summer, the St. Louis-based grocery store chain Schnuck Markets also engaged Tally at three of its locations. And corporate giant Walmart has filed a patent to use drones to locate, grab, and deliver merchandise to customers.
The appeal of these robots for store owners is clear. Rather than having an inefficient human worker slowly plod around a store checking prices and finding merchandise—and getting paid for simple but time-consuming duties like searching for an out-of-stock item in a vast basement—the robots can perform the same tasks quickly, without error, and don’t expect a paycheck in return. Robotic helpers might even help save brick-and-mortar stores of all kinds from going extinct in the Amazon, Instacart, and FreshDirect era: an Israeli startup, CommonSense Robotics, has developed robotic infrastructure that relies on a network of robot helpers that can quickly locate, organize and prepare for shipping items that customers order online from local stores.
While it’s fairly easy to imagine a future of grocery stores devoid of human presence but filled with Martys and Tallys helping you avoid all those “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” moments, Harakal, of the Food Lion stores, insists it’s not in the chain’s best interest to replace all its workers with robots.
“Marty is collecting information to help us do a more efficient job and create a better shopping experience for our customers,” but can’t take the place of human workers, he says. “Additionally, associates still complete safety checks in areas Marty can’t get to,” he adds.
But the rosy picture of artificial intelligence cooperating with its human creators isn’t the future that the late, great physicist Stephen Hawking envisioned. A few years ago, he warned of a robot apocalypse within the next century, when computer technology might finally outsmart—and possibly conquer—us. "It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded,” Hawking conjectured in a 2014 interview with the BBC. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
Better, then, to stay on guard around innocent-looking Marty as he directs you around a puddle—while simultaneously plotting your demise.