Fabio was meant to help customers but he creeped them out instead

By Tim Nelson
Updated February 13, 2018
A humanoid robot
Credit: Bloomberg via Getty Images

For every story about the mass displacement of the human labor force at the hands of artificially intelligent robots, there seems to be another suggesting that they might not be ready to take over the world just yet. As it turns out, robots aren’t immune to getting fired from their supermarket job, either.

Take the recent case of “Fabio”, a little Scottish robot who recently lost its job at the flagship Edinburgh location of Scottish supermarket chain Margiotta. Commissioned as part of an experiment for BBC program Six Robots & Us, this modified version of SoftBank’s “Pepper” robot programmed by Heriot-Watt University to find certain products in the store by SKU, answer customer questions, and dispense chipper greetings. In the process, Margiotta hoped the AI experiment would position them as innovative. “We thought a robot was a great addition to show the customers that we are always wanting to do something new and exciting,” Elena Margiotta, who runs the chain of six shops alongside her father and sister, told the Telegraph.

But Fabio’s presence quickly created more confusion and consternation than convenience. The store was frequently too loud for Fabio to understand customer questions, and those answers it did provide were too vague. Once it was evident that shoppers preferred seeking out a human employee, Fabio was demoted to providing meat samples, but even the robot’s presence in that role led customers to actively avoid his aisle. And though he’d won over the staff, Margiotta’s had no choice but to power down their synthetic humanoid friend.

Some feel that the problem may be cultural. Pepper robots like Fabio have found success in Japan and pockets of the Bay Area, but they’re a much rarer site in a place like Scotland. For now, it’s either necessary to reprogram Fabio to do its work more effectively or else wait until a time when the idea of a diminutive robot roaming the aisles isn’t quite as terrifying. If all else fails, maybe a reboot with a thicker, Sean Connery-esque Scottish burr could work.