The first robot to work in retail in Scotland has been tested at a supermarket in Edinburgh where it offered shoppers free samples of food and provided information about products.

Known as Fabio, the robot was developed by academics at Heriot-Watt University who are world leaders in designing artificial intelligence systems which can hold conversations with humans.

The software is connected to the internet meaning the robot has access to an unlimited amount of information which is used to respond to questions.

The robot spent a week at a branch of the upmarket story Margiotta in the capital and Dr Oliver Lemon, Director of the Interaction Lab at Heriot-Watt, admits he was surprised by the reaction his invention got.

He said: “One of 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.

“In actual fact they thought it was an enhancement because it was able to deal with frequent and boring requests, like customers constantly asking where things are, which I think they found quite helpful.”

Luisa Margiotta, the marketing manager at the family business, said customers “seemed to enjoy engaging with Fabio, which is what we hoped for” but conversations didn’t always go well.

She explained: “An issue we had was the movement limitations of the robot. It was not able to move around the shop and direct customers to the items they were looking for. Instead it just gave a general location, for example, “cheese is in the fridges”, which was not very helpful.”

Lemon said Fabio is a prototype and over the next two years his team will have a robot which will work in a shopping centre.

He said: “It’s going to help people find their way around. The same technology could be used for airports and even hospitals. In the next five years or so you’ll begin to see robots in this assistive role for navigating around big places.

“Robots will never fully replace humans because there are some human judgements robots will never be able to make but they will replace some functions. There are a lot of mundane tasks that don’t require human creativity or a human level of sensitivity. A lot of those can be automated.”

Academics are also working towards creating interactive robots which have more “fluid” movement and one expert predicted we could see these within a decade.

Robotics expert Professor David Benyon, from Napier University, said: “The robots we have now are first generation robots which do straightforward jobs like build cars and don’t move about, and second generation robots which do move about and have voice recognition which is quite interesting. But at the moment robots are very much based on mechanics.

“The next phase is a much more fluid body, which you need for a care robot that is looking after people. I would hope Scotland will be leading the way on these. They’re not really going to be ubiquitous and wandering around everywhere for a number of years. But ten or fifteen years from now you’ll see them deployed.”

Luisa Margiotta was sceptical when asked whether robots will one day replace shop workers in her stores. She said: “We find our customers love a personal interaction and speaking to our staff is a big part of that. Our staff members know our regulars very well and can have conversations on a daily a basis and I doubt robots would be able to fulfil this. It is possible, I believe, that robots could assist with behind the scene type roles in the retail industry, such as warehouse-based tasks, but I doubt they will ever eliminate the need for human interaction. I am confident there will be plenty of retail jobs available for people as and when they need them in the future.”


Students at Heriot-Watt University are working on an advanced artificial intelligence system which can hold a conversation on a variety of topics for a full 20 minutes.

The students hope their invention will win this year’s Amazon Alexa prize. The team came third in the inaugural competition in 2017 which saw more than 100 teams from 22 countries apply for a $100,000 grant from the multi-national online retailer.

Amazon challenged participants to build a socialbot connected to Amazon's Alexa-enabled devices, such as Amazon Echo or Amazon Echo Dot, that can converse on popular topics for 20 minutes.

Dr Oliver Lemon said of the Scottish AI: “It’s able to hold sustained conversations about the news but it also has Wikipedia at its disposal, so you can talk to it about absolutely anything and it’s quite engaging.”

However, Lemon admitted there are some “bugs” which must be “ironed out”. “Unfortunately, it was telling people Santa didn’t exist,” he said. “That was a bug we had to quickly fix. In a way it wasn’t a bug, it was talking about something it had read on a news website. There are all these funny issues where you don’t know who’s talking to the system and you have to be careful that it doesn’t say the wrong thing, even if it’s not actually offensive. For instance, we’ve got some specific answers where it doesn’t give a view on religion.”

Staying away from religion is important because the system will handle thousands of interactions a day from Americans, he says. Lemon says another problem is learning how to handle abuse directed towards Alexa from those interacting with the AI.

Lemon said the vast majority of the 250,000 conversations held so far have been “totally fine and fun” but there have been people who “like to practice their swearing, and it can be sexual.”

“You get people at three o’clock in the morning who have had too much to drink. We’re trying to push back against the abuse and tell people it’s not acceptable. The whole industry is starting to think about how to tackle the issues.”

Amazon is expected to announce the participants in the 2018 competition on February 1.