Robot in aisle 3: Retail turns more and more to machines

QUINCY — It was just a scrap of paper on the floor of a Stop & Shop supermarket in Quincy, near the produce section. But for Marty, no matter how small the scrap, it was one piece too many. At the sight of it, Marty froze and called for backup.

Marty is not some teenager working an after-school shift. It is 140 pounds of plastic and metal, with glowing lights atop a towering frame with big cartoon eyes, and cameras and lasers to spot garbage, spills, and other stuff that shouldn’t be in the aisles of a supermarket.

The $35,000 machine is one of about 500 robots that Stop & Shop’s owner, the Dutch company Ahold Delhaize, has deployed in some of its US grocery stores. And in the process, Ahold is doing its part to normalize robots in public places.

Thousands of people work with robots in factories or use robotic vacuum cleaners and mops at home to clean their floors.

But Marty is in the vanguard of an army of machines that will make casual run-ins with robots commonplace in store aisles, on sidewalks, and in other public places.

Walmart, for example, is deploying hundreds of machines to scrub the floors of its stores and take inventory by scanning the shelves. Companies such as Starship Technologies and Amazon.com are testing robots that roll down sidewalks delivering pizzas and soda pop in Seattle, London, Beijing, and other cities.

Meanwhile, Agility Robotics of Albany, Ore., recently announced a partnership with Ford Motor Co. on an automated package delivery system that combines a self-driving van with a two-legged walking robot. The van will drive itself to the destination; the robot will pick out the correct package and walk it to the customer’s doorstep. The only humans involved will probably be awestruck spectators.

It’s sci-fi movie stuff but here in real life. And no matter how many “Star Wars” films we’ve seen, we’re not ready.

For instance, the rise of robots may threaten the jobs of millions of workers, such as those who went on strike earlier this year at Marty’s home base, Stop & Shop. Erikka Knuti, communications director for the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, said her group is all for technological innovation, but she said the company should invest in people first.

“For $35,000 you can get a worker who can do a lot more than stop and stare at a spill,” said Knuti. “Human beings are still social animals. When people go to the stores, they want customer service.”

But for Stop & Shop senior vice president Stacy Wiggins, customer service is exactly the reason the company is using Marty. Far from replacing workers, Wiggins said, the robot “frees up the associate to actually take care of customers.”

In theory, Marty could result in cleaner stores with more attentive clerks, which in turn could attract more shoppers and lead to new hiring. But there’s only one way to find out.

More robots also might mean less privacy. Machines such as Marty use cameras to find their way around — cameras that could track every visitor to the store. Each Marty robot has a sign saying it “uses image capturing technology to report spills, debris and other potential hazards.” But the sign doesn’t explicitly say that Marty does not take photos of people or will discard such images if captured accidentally.

Stop & Shop says it does not photograph customers. The company doesn’t even use Marty’s cameras to check store shelves for inventory tracking.

Amir Aitbouqdir was all smiles after encountering Marty the robot while his mother, Souaad El Ghabouchi, shopped at Stop & Shop in Quincy. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Julie Carpenter, a research fellow in the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group situated at California Polytechnic State University, said retailers need to lay out a specific privacy policy as they introduce robots. Otherwise, she warned, “there could be potential pushback — people saying I don’t want to shop there until I know what’s going on.”

This issue becomes more acute as robots hit the sidewalks. Consider Ford’s planned walking delivery robot. Imagine if it is programmed to photograph all nearby houses, recording the brand of parked cars or the lawn mower used by a neighbor. Advertisers might pay a fortune for such data. But if you’re that neighbor, how do you tell somebody else’s robot to mind its own business?

“How can you possibly opt in or out of this?” Carpenter asked. “Companies . . . need to anticipate those questions.”

There’s also the possibility that some humans won’t welcome the constant presence of mobile, intelligent machines. “People seem to have a very strong response, both positive and negative, to robots,” said Guy Hoffman, an assistant professor of engineering at Cornell University. “They’re either these cultural saviors or doomsday devices.”

But while there have been incidents worldwide when people have attacked robotic security guards and self-driving cars, Hoffman predicts that in the long run, humans will make their peace with the machines.

At the Quincy Stop & Shop, shoppers seemed downright indifferent to Marty patrolling the aisles, issuing a soft beep every few seconds to announce its presence. One stepped casually out of its way; others stood pat, trusting the robot to halt and change course, which it always did.

One shopper, Nancy Lesslie of Quincy, paused to say hello to Marty. It’s become part of her shopping routine. “I talk to him, “ Lesslie said. “I take videos of him. I show them to my kids . . . he just makes me smile.”

When it detected a scrap of trash, Marty stopped and its head blinked an amber light. A cool female voice chanted, “Caution, hazard detected,” in English and Spanish, and the message was also relayed over the store’s public address system.

Unlike Walmart’s floor scrubbers, Marty isn’t capable of cleaning up. Instead, it pings a mobile app on an employee’s phone to report the location of the mess. Once the cleanup is complete, the worker touches a button on Marty’s side and the robot resumes its patrol.

Marty came into being almost by accident. Badger Technologies, the Nicholasville, Ky., company that makes the machine, started life as a research project inside Lexmark, the maker of computer printers and digital signs for retail stores.

When Lexmark executives wanted to help retailers automatically monitor inventory and identify spills and trash, they toyed with a host of ideas, some of them downright bizarre — flying drones over the shelves, or cameras suspended from cables like those used in NFL stadiums.

In the end, said Badger chief executive Tim Rowland, they figured a patrolling robot was the easiest way.

“We didn’t want the retailer to have to build any infrastructure,” said Rowland. A robot “requires nothing from anyone in the store. . . . You basically program them and put them in motion.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

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