Margiotta shoppers say farewell to first robot worker

Fabio the robot gives a huge. Picture: Contributed
Fabio the robot gives a huge. Picture: Contributed
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The first robot to work in retail in Scotland reduced one worker to tears when it was removed from a Margiotta branch.

Known as Fabio, the robot was developed by academics at Heriot-Watt University, and offered shoppers free samples of food and provided information about products.

The university based in Edinburgh are considered world leaders in designing artificial intelligence systems which can hold conversations with humans.

The robot spent a week at a branch of the upmarket store Margiotta in the capital and carried out time-consuming tasks such as helping customers find where things are.

The software is connected to the internet, meaning the robot has access to an unlimited amount of information which is used to respond to questions.

Dr Oliver Lemon, director of the Interaction Lab at Heriot-Watt, admits he was surprised by the reaction his invention got.

He said: “One of things we didn’t expect was the people working in the shop became quite attached to it.

“When we had to pack it up and put it back in the box one of them started crying because they had become emotionally attached to it.

“It was good in a way, because we thought the opposite would happen and they would feel threatened by it because it was competing for their job.

“In actual fact they thought it was an enhancement because it was able to deal with frequent and boring requests, like customers constantly asking where things are, which I think they found quite helpful.”

Luisa Margiotta, the marketing manager at the family business, said customers “seemed to enjoy engaging with Fabio, which is what we hoped for” but conversations didn’t always go well.

She added: “An issue we had was the movement limitations of the robot. It was not able to move around the shop and direct customers to the items they were looking for.

“Instead it just gave a general location, for example, ‘cheese is in the fridges’, which was not very helpful.”

Dr Lemon said Fabio is a prototype and over the next two years his team will have a robot which will work in a shopping centre.

He said: “It’s going to help people find their way around. The same technology could be used for airports and even hospitals.

“In the next five years or so you’ll begin to see robots in this assistive role for navigating around big places.

“Robots will never fully replace humans because there are some human judgments robots will never be able to make but they will replace some functions.

“There are a lot of mundane tasks that don’t require human creativity or a human level of sensitivity. A lot of those can be automated.”

Asked whether robots could one day replace shop workers, Luisa Margiotta was sceptical.

She added: “We find our customers love a personal interaction and speaking to our staff is a big part of that.

“Our staff members know our regulars very well and can have conversations on a daily a basis, and I doubt robots would be able to fulfil this.

“It is possible, I believe, that robots could assist with roles such as warehouse-based tasks, but I doubt they will ever eliminate the need for human interaction.

“I am confident there will be plenty of retail jobs available for people as and when they need them in the future.”