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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Brown: Stop & Shop's robot and me

Newsday's Joye Brown encountered Marty, Stop & Shop's spill-detecting robot. Credit: Newsday / Joye Brown

We first met, eye to googly eye, when my shopping cart triggered the automatic doors to my local Stop & Shop.

Momentarily stunned, I stood in place as a pair of plate-sized eyes, plastered to a tall, gray, pillar of a robot, glided past smoothly, right to left — trailed closely by two men keeping watch as it slid into the produce section.

Little did I know I was witnessing a first that morning — the launch of an autonomous robot, who, once every hour, would wander among the grocery's paying customers.

"Watch," one man said to the other.

And so, yes, I stopped — to eavesdrop, just across from the prepackaged fruit aisle, and you know you would have stopped too.

"Look," the narrator said, "there's a cherry pit."

My eyes scoured a section of floor, more than once, trying to find what he was talking about.

It turned out to be a dark spot, which I'd mistaken for a smudge of stomped-on gum.

"It's going to roll past it," the narrator went on, as the robot — blinking blue from slits at the top — did just that.

"It's going to stop."

The thing did that, too.

And then I waited, because, well, who watching a robot making a trek in the neighborhood Stop & Shop, wouldn't?

Was that thing going to roll over that pit and, like some giant Roomba, vacuum it up?

Would it handle the task Jetson's-style, by extending some yet-unseen mechanism, as did Rosie the Robot, to sweep the pit away?

It ended up doing neither.

Instead, it settled alongside the pit, and, over the store's speaker system, called out for an associate — you know, a human — to do the cleaning.

Hopes dashed, I set to shopping as the robot glided on.

Somewhere between the fresh corn and organic produce section, I asked one of the men whether that thing had a name.

"Marty," he answered.

And how long has it — or should that be he — been at this store?

"About five minutes," came the reply.

Jennifer Brogan, director of external communications and community affairs for Stop & Shop, said Marty was put in place, in part, to relieve store employees of the task of walking through the store, every hour, to scout out spills or other potential hazards.

The robot is at some, but not all, of the company's Long Island locations. And it carried its name over from Badger Technologies in Kentucky, which in partnership with Stop & Shop's parent company, has put almost 500 of the units in grocery stores. 

Stop & Shop is hardly the first business to dispatch autonomous robots to work alongside customers. But substituting robots for people power is causing union leaders some concern.

"We are actively watching to see how it affects our members, the workers in stores, and the consumers, and how it relates to them," said John Durso, president of the Long Island Federation of Labor.

"It is a bit disconcerting to have this machine in there," he said. "We are keeping a close eye on it."

As for Marty, it was gliding along, toward the bananas, when I queried one of the men about the silliness of its eyes.

"Without them," he said, "it can look a little Terminator like."

True, that, I would find out a few minutes later as Marty came a-gliding up my same aisle, near the potatoes and onions, its googly eyes turned elsewhere.

From that angle, yeah, the robot — showing glowing slits instead of eyes — does take on a more menacing look.

But there was a more immediate issue (after I snapped a selfie): Would the machine stop before colliding head on with my shopping cart?

It did, and from a considerable distance away.

As it turns out, the robot — which is equipped with sensors, a navigation system and high resolution cameras — can detect obstructions in its path, Brogan said.

But what about those cameras?

If customers end up being recorded, the images — like those in ever-present store security photos — would be erased over time, she said.

Meanwhile, Marty had made his way out of produce and was heading toward the meat department.

Why does it have eyes and no mouth, I asked.

"I ordered one," came the quick reply.

"It's a smile." 

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