“Can we see the robot?” one of our daughters asked.
“Sure,” my wife answered.
We were finishing up lunch and I had mentioned I wanted to briefly visit the Stop & Shop to look for something. I had no idea this outlet near our home employed one of those grocery store robots I had seen mentioned online ubiquitously. These slim, monolith grey towers on wheels are outfitted with large googly-eyes as one would a child’s craft. I had heard they were being installed in more and more stores; friends had posted photos of them at their local supermarkets. I had yet to see one in action.
The shopping center at Linden Place and the Whitestone Expressway in Flushing is a zone of cluttered chaos and the logical effluvium of the overcrowded eyesore of the streets nearby. Forgotten New York rightfully calls this part of Flushing “Queens’ Crappiest” for its lack of aesthetics, complete disrespect of historic buildings, and utter incompetence of the design of residential buildings. The shopping center was not long ago filled with crater-like potholes. It has a check cashing establishment and was for a time frequented prostitutes that served truck drivers. I try to avoid this shopping center because of the traffic alone—it’s either accessed by a busy highway service road or a two-lane street that is often busy. My kids love the McDonald’s that is there for some reason; perhaps I have already failed as a father.
The Stop & Shop there is a last refuge of desperation when we are looking for groceries that aren’t found elsewhere. Now I also wanted to see the grocery store robot. These robots are named “Marty.” Stop & Shop supermarkets have deployed them in more them in more than 200 stores to look for spills and hazards. According to Mashable, each robots costs $35,000 and weighs 140 pounds. Also, these robots don’t clean up anything, but just alert people nearby to the fact that there is a mess.
I went looking for the one item I hoped they had: a specific popular baby food pouch that serves as a healthy snack for our youngest daughter. I headed for the baby food aisle while the rest of my family made a bee line for the back of the store where they spotted the robot.
The baby food section was the same mess it was at my last visit and was without the food pouch I was looking for. I scoured again and looked behind every box and envelope to no avail. The robot had not spent enough time in this aisle.
My excited daughters came to get me to show me the robot, which was making its way across the back of the store from where they had first met it near the deli. They ran after it and my wife and I followed.
When my children ran up on the robot again, it seemed to pause to allow us all to gawk at it. Bored shoppers accustomed to the googly-eyed rolling cyborg went about their shopping.
“Hi Marty!” my children thought this thing was great. Maybe you could put googly eyes on a giant steaming people of crap and children will find it convincingly anthropomorphized into a cute friend and want to take it home. The robot slowly moved away from us, not interacting with anyone other than moving out of our way and appearing to look at us with its false, plastic, and unblinking eyes.
New York City seems like a poor choice to send Marty. Our supermarkets are too crowded, and our people in need of work is always plentiful. Also, New Yorkers are more skeptical of gimmicks like this. While little kids got a kick out of Marty the robot, most adults are put off by it.
The supermarket robot is not the coming incarnation of Skynet, the computer system that becomes self-aware and plunges the world into a nuclear holocaust in the Terminator films. It’s pretty underwhelming by itself.
The truly troubling issue with the increasing use of robots is not that technology is marching forward and machines are doing jobs people want to do. It’s that people no longer want to act like people as much anymore.
If society functioned well, customers would report a spill to an accessible employee, who would easily see to it that the spill was cleaned up, or the store would employ enough cleaning staff to make it a pleasurable experience. Instead we’ll gawk at a machine and be on our way.
We are spurning human contact in favor of technology-driven convenience because our human interactions have plunged in quality. That’s not the fault of the machines, that’s our fault.
This past weekend my wife and I got new smart phones. It’s a ritual we are accustomed to doing every two years, and it was hastened by our one-year-old daughter putting my wife’s phone in a cup of coffee.
We took our brood on a shopping adventure to our local wireless store and purchased the latest Android phone. We picked out our phones and accessories and I remained at the store while my wife took our three daughters to visit stores with less expensive breakables.
By the time the store closed an hour and a half later, my phone was not done transferring so I had to keep my old phone close to it as I searched for the rest of my family. We hadn’t arranged to meet at any specific location but I’d simply start walking around the Bay Terrace Shopping Center and hope to see them. I couldn’t text my wife to find out where they were, I had her phone stuffed in a shopping bag along with extra charging cables and other accessories.
While I may have once taken pride in being somewhat of a Luddite, there is no stopping the increasing use of technology. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I was the last person among my circles of friends to get a cell phone and one of the last to get a smart phone. I’m not as technologically connected as my younger peers at work. I have come to embrace technology even if I use it more sparingly than others. It’s a matter not only of etiquette (sending a text message if you are going to be late) but increasingly of safety (knowing who can see our children’s photos on social media).
I refuse to be one of the zombies I see slowing down foot traffic in the city, and those slothful grown children are not the product of technology but rather bad character and upbringing. If mobile phone technology had never been invented, no doubt these self-centered techno rubes would be finding other ways to make our lives more difficult.
The people who are abusing smart phones and gaming technology are inheritors of the slack-jawed mindlessness of those who abused television and less advanced video games years ago.
Technology does not cause any moral rot any more than it creates virtue. Throughout the centuries there have been two schools of thought that have reacted to technology that have been totally wrong: those who think that it will bring about the downfall of mankind and those that thought that it would bring a new era of virtue and help create a more equitable society.
As I searched for my family, I came across a man who was standing idle on the sidewalk. He looked at me as I looked across the parking lot and struck up a conversation, asking me if I was bored and commenting that this part of Queens is boring and Manhattan is where it’s at. I made polite conversation, but noted we were not far from interesting nightlife closer to Northern Boulevard and that the shopping center had a movie theater.
The man was odd and too eager to speak with strangers. He was not threatening at all, just awkward and sad. I did not ask him if he had a smart phone with him but if he did I did not see it. Such a device would have helped him find something to do. Queens does not have the same social scene as Manhattan, but that’s no matter. No one in the five boroughs has any reason to be bored.
And someone by themselves at a shopping center on a Saturday night striking up a conversation with me has social issues holding them back more than geographical challenges.
But no matter, a few minutes later I found my family at a frozen yogurt shop, and we enjoyed some brain-freezing treats before heading back home. My wife and I had to feed our kids and get them to bed before spending time with our phones getting them set up properly. We’re almost done.