Robots Should Have Purpose

Is the kitsch worth the price tag?
Photograph: Shutterstock

QUINCY, Mass. — Customers shopping in nearly 500 Ahold Delhaize USA-owned stores celebrated a birthday recently. The birthday included cake, balloons, decorations and more.

The celebration was not for a person, but for a machine named Marty.

Marty was unleashed on stores in January 2019. The tall and slim robot with googly eyes has a simple job: spot messes in the store and immediately notify employees so they can clean it up.

The robot weighs about 140 pounds and costs about $35,000, according to online news source Mashable. Once Marty spots a mess, he stops beside it. His blue lights turn yellow and he verbally announces the presence of the mess repeatedly in both English and Spanish until an employee arrives to clean the mess.

Some customers are unimpressed. One such customer, after seeing Marty in action, told Mashable, “Oh, I thought it washed the floor. Wow … I’ve got my husband to tell me there’s a mess.”

Instead of coming to the robot’s defense, an employee then turned to the customer and said, “It’s really not doing much of anything besides getting in the way,” according to the report.

It seems that Marty’s most important job is not cleaning up messes at all, instead being used as a marketing and public relations tool. “I talk to [Marty], I take videos of him. I show them to my kids. … He just makes me smile,” one shopper told The Boston Globe in May 2019.

Stop & Shop locations with a Marty on staff go out of their way to portray the robot as a real person on social media. For instance, locations tweeted about his “birthday.”

Lack of humanity aside, Marty has plenty of fans, and some of them wished him a happy birthday via Twitter. This celebration begs a question, however. Does all of the hubbub on social media really justify this robot’s existence? The $35,000 that each Marty costs could have been put toward real human employees who are capable of cleaning up messes all by themselves.

Marty’s birthday is also potentially bad for employee morale. Imagine a clerk at a c-store or grocery store who arrives to work on his or her actual human birthday. They walk in, and the store is covered in decorations that read, “Happy Birthday.” Any reasonable human whose birthday falls on this date might suspect the celebration is for them. Any reasonable human might also be disappointed when they find the celebration is for a robot.

It is possible that Marty will build up enough goodwill among customers to make up for his hefty price tag. Maybe Marty will pave the way for newer robots with more productive functions. Or maybe this is just another case of kitsch gone too far.

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