Photo Credit: Elena Margiotta via Twitter

While we often hear of humans losing their jobs, a robot being fired for incompetence is almost unheard of. However, that is exactly what a Scottish grocery store was forced to do after its newly-employed humanoid robot proved woefully inept at performing the assigned tasks.

The intern, nicknamed Fabio, was part of an experiment conducted by the Heriot-Watt University for BBC’s Six Robots and Us, which explores the integration of men and machine. Manufactured by Japan’s SoftBank, it is a member of the Pepper family of humanoid robots that are “employed” by companies worldwide. Elena Margiotta, co-owner of the Margiotta supermarket chain, says, "We thought a robot was a great addition to show the customers that we are always wanting to do something new and exciting.”

Fabio’s job was to make customers feel welcome and assist them in locating grocery items if asked. Things seemed to start off well. The almost 4-foot-tall humanoid robot greeted customers with a cheery “hello gorgeous,” conversed intelligently about the weather, and even gave hugs and slapped high-fives. However, its friendly demeanor appeared to wane when a shopper needed help. For example, a customer inquiring about the location of cheese would receive a vague answer like “in the dairy section.” Not surprisingly, store visitors began to avoid the robot and started seeking out human employees for help.

Photo Credit: BBC (screenshot Six Robots and Us)

Believing it may do better at a job that entailed more socializing, Fabio was assigned to hand out sausage samples. Unfortunately, that did not go too well. While a human employee managed to entice 12 customers to try the food in 15 minutes, the robot attracted just two. It turned out that customers were a little scared of the knife-yielding android and decided to stay as far away as possible.

Since Fabio was not trained for any other job, the grocery store management decided to “fire” the robot on January 18, a week after it had first reported for duty. While the customers were probably thrilled, the store’s employees were a little upset at the decision, a reaction that surprised Dr. Oliver Lemon. The Director of the Interaction Lab at Heriot-Watt says, ”One of the 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.” As he later discovered, the tears were not out of fondness for Fabio, but because the robot freed the human employees from the tedious task of responding to mundane customer questions.

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However, before you start thinking all robots are incompetent, Fabio appears to be an anomaly within its family. The thousands of other Pepper humanoids gainfully employed at various Japanese retail stores, including Pizza Hut, seem to be thriving and extremely popular with customers.