- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 4, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Walmart just announced 360 janitor robots with data-collecting capabilities will make their debuts at select stores before the end of January.

Let’s hope these ‘bots do better than the ones sent to help astronauts at the International Space Station.

Or, the ones already at work in retail shops around the world.

“Store Hires Robot to Help Out Customers,” IFL Science reported earlier this year, about a grocery in Scotland. The rest of the headline went like this: “Robot Gets Fired For Scaring Customers Away.”

Oops. Lessons learned?

Customers don’t like pushy salespeople — or aggressive robots.

Retailers, no doubt hungry for the payroll savings and the need to remain competitive in today’s tight global markets, are apparently adjusting for these glitches and moving full-steam ahead with technology.

Walmart’s floor-cleaning ‘bots come courtesy a partnership with the San Diego-based Brain Corp — and shiny new as they are, they’re still not the first on the retail giant’s scene. More than a year ago, Walmart placed dozens of robots produced by Bossa Nova, another California company, in select stores to scan shelves to identify misplaced products, incorrect prices and inventory needs.

This is just the beginning of what’s going to be a long trend of technology taking over human jobs — and not just at Walmart.

Nestle has placed a human-like robot named Pepper in some of its Japanese stores to sell coffee makers to customers. Amazon uses robots it purchased in a $775 million deal with Kiva to pull stock and pack boxes for customer purchases. Target has been testing out a robot named Tally that’s programmed to keep track of inventory and scan in-store products for proper pricing. Lowe’s joined with Fellow Robots to develop the LoweBot, an artificially intelligent-fused device to help customers find items via verbal or typed instructions.

And likely, very likely, this is just the tip of the iceberg of how A.I.-powered robotics will be shaping shopping.

But sometimes, mistakes occur. Sometimes, the reality hasn’t caught up with the dream.

So it would seem with IBM’s Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, or CIMON, an interactive A.I. assistant that floats around the ISS — yes, floats — and answers astronauts’ questions. Like an Alexa for the stars. And on that, maybe the concept’s good. But that’s about it.

“CIMON’s debut,” The Verge wrote, “seen in a new video released by the European Space Agency, shows an early interaction with the space robot is going, well, exactly that way that every single science fiction movie has prepared you to think it will.”

Which is to say: Not so well. So what happened?

Basically, CIMON started live-streaming some music, but it didn’t want to stop. And when the astronaut tried to prod it to move along, CIMON says, The Verge reported: “Don’t you like it up here with me? Don’t be so mean please.”

It’s a bit funny — until, of course, maybe one day when it’s not.

Wondering what happens when A.I.-infused robots get annoyed should stay the stuff of science fiction. You know what? Scratch that.

A.I.-infused robots simply shouldn’t be getting annoyed in the first place.

• Cheryl Chumley can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter, @ckchumley.


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