Because Anne is so much better at it than I am — and because she actually enjoys it (?!) — I rarely do any grocery shopping. But I recently had occasion to go to our local Stop & Shop. As I was bending down to look on one of the lower shelves for cannellini beans, I heard a slight whirring sound, followed by a question.
“May I help you find something?”
I looked up to find a rather odd-looking robot facing me. As I was introducing myself, I extended my right hand to shake the robot’s, only to notice he had no arms, let alone hands. I quickly stuck my hands in my pockets and starting shuffling nervously.
The robot said, “I’m Marty. Do you need a price on something?”
“No,” I said. “I just have to buy some of these cannellini beans, or my wife won’t let me back in the house.”
Though Marty seemed to grasp the concept, he said, “Do you need a clean-up on aisle 5?”
I quickly looked up at the aisle-marker sign. “No. Actually, we’re in aisle 7, Marty. And even if I dropped a can of beans, nothing would break or spill. So, I think we’re good.”
“Shall I call a manager?” Marty asked.
“Unless the manager’s going to give me some kind of discount, I think I’m all set. Thank you.”
Suddenly, I heard Marty’s voice come over the store’s public-address system: “Security to aisle seven! Security to aisle seven!”
As security guards sprinted toward us from either end of the aisle, I started to get nervous. I was fairly sure I was innocent of whatever compelled Marty to call security. But he hadn’t given me any indication of what the charges might be.
“Is something wrong?” I asked Marty, my voice a bit tremulous.
He didn’t answer me. But when the security guards rushed up, he said, “Arrest this man. He threatened to discount the manager.”
I said, “Marty, I think you misunderstood the idiom.”
Marty turned to the security guards and said, “He also called me an idiot.”
Between the Lines
We ask a lot of robots. But we can’t expect them to pick up on subtlety, nuance, or the idiomatic uses of words. I’ll illustrate the point with a completely different story:
As the late-blooming college student I was, I once had a roommate in the off-campus house where I made my abode. He was a young man who originally hailed from Iran. His name was Sohrab. Most of his education had been in the West, and in his English was very good.
One Friday evening, neither of us had anything to do. Sohrab asked me, “Would you like to command a pizza?”
In any definitional sense, I couldn’t tell him he was wrong. I just said, “Sure.”
I suspect Sohrab and Marty would get along famously. They could completely misunderstand each other and be perfectly happy about it.
Sohrab will be okay But it can’t be easy being Marty.
Here’s a tribute to his species: