Arika Bunfill has heard it all.
“Are you real?”
“Will you clean my house too?”
“Will you go out with me?”
It’s hard out there for a robot.
Bunfill works at the Beam store in downtown Palo Alto, California. Scratch that. Bunfill works from her comfortable home in Vacaville, about 90 miles away. But her presence, via Beam, a teleconference robot that looks like the offspring of a computer and a Segway, roams the floor at what Beam reps say is the world’s first and only unmanned store. That’s right, no human beings work at the store—it’s operated 100-percent remotely by folks like Bunfill.
“Hello ladies,” Bunfill says cheerfully to two women walking by the brightly lit shop. They are momentarily stunned by her greeting from a flat panel face, but then walk away, glancing back once. Bunfill is undeterred. She maintains her bonhomie, swivels her wheeled robotic base, and begins to chat up Vish Sastry and Kaval Ali, a young couple on their first date. Ali, a trademark paralegal, is unfazed that she’s carrying on a conversation with a machine. “This is so Silicon Valley,” she said with a dismissive wave.
Tom Wyatt is the store manager but he only stops by about once a week—mostly because he’s a big fan of Cream, the trendy ice-cream shop across the street. Wyatt and a robot, controlled remotely by Michelle Posey, will head over there together. The sight of a man and robot getting banana walnut fudge together is a stunt that draws lots of attention—exactly what Wyatt wants. “Once you see the Beam in real time, it’s easy to understand the value,” Wyatt said.
“The live environment is really effective,” said Erin Rapacki, Beam’s director of marketing. Effective means sales. The robots, after all, are trying to sell themselves. Posey, 29, joined the 30-person team in December and works four-hour shifts, five or six days a week. At the start of her shift, she simply logs into the system from her home in Monterey. From there, Posey can open and close the front doors of the retail space, adjust lighting and temperature, pilot the Beam around the store, answer questions about the product, and wow curious kids by dispensing brightly colored skittles from a tricked-out candy canister. With a few exceptions, adjusting to an unmanned space was seamless. Wyatt clumsily strapped a leaf blower on a Beam’s base, and when trash clutters up the polka-dotted carpet entrance, one of the pilots will assume cleanup duty and whirl the Beam around the store.