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My New Co-worker Is a … Robot?

Robot in the office
Don't be alarmed if your new co-worker ends up being a robot. It's really just for added security. [Devon McGinnis]

Some Salesforce locations recently added office robots to assist security teams — and employees have had interesting encounters as they welcome their new office mates.

The exec summary

Robots are coming … to some Salesforce offices. As an experiment to augment security teams, the Cobalt Robotics office robots (inherited from decommissioned Slack offices) recently started quietly roaming hallways to assist security by checking for:

  • Security breaches
  • Environmental issues, such as problems with heating or air conditioning
  • Closed and locked doors 

The backstory you need

With much news around artificial intelligence (AI) and how it can impact business, seeing robots entering more of our spaces can trigger privacy questions. These robots roaming the floors at some Salesforce offices do not take random photos of people or have access to personal information. They simply assist human security teams. 

  • “The goal is to provide a more safe and secure work environment and do so as efficiently as possible,” said Robert Mirakaj, senior director, physical security operations for Salesforce.  

The main takeaway

AI and robots will increasingly play a role in our daily lives, both at work and in our personal lives. That doesn’t mean they’re taking over. On the contrary, many of the programs and products are being used to help make us more productive and fill in the gaps for people to do their work better. 

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Backstory on the Salesforce office robots

After Salesforce completed its acquisition of Slack in 2021, the security operations team learned that six office robots had been purchased from Cobalt Robotics to patrol the halls to perform security checks at some Slack offices. When those offices got decommissioned, the security team gained access to the robots and decided to run a test program with them. Now, six offices around the world have robots. They tested different-sized offices, including a smaller building in Palo Alto, Calif., where Salesforce is the sole tenant, and Salesforce Tower in Indianapolis, which has a multi-tenant environment, Mirakaj said.

“We tried to identify different types of buildings that we operate so we can test the functionality,” he said.

Using robots to augment security

The security team trains each of the office robots to follow predesignated tracks throughout the office. If it encounters an object in its path, especially a person, it stops moving. This helps to avoid unnecessary interactions, accidents, or having the robot fall down a set of stairs — or run into you after you’ve made a hot drink. 

Shortly after the robot arrived at the Indianapolis office, Devon McGinnis, Salesforce director of communications content strategy, was leaving the floor’s kitchen after making tea when she heard the robot and slowed down. 

“I was worried that had I been walking any faster around that corner, we would have collided,” McGinnis said while laughing. “It could have been scalding hot tea everywhere.”

While moments like that are awkward and somewhat funny, the robots really are there to meet security protocols. 

“The robot is like a Roomba moving around a predesignated track,” said Kory Turnbow, Salesforce manager of physical security. “It looks for things we designate as violations or things we need to have checked.”

That could be seeing if a door was accidentally left open, monitoring air quality in the office, or being deployed if an alarm goes off. The office robot can audit first aid boxes and fire extinguishers, as well as submit work orders for overflowing trash. It’s equipped with a “call” button so anyone with a safety or security concern can start a real-time video call with a live security operator. The robot can do rounds at night when fewer security staff are on location and intervene in unsafe situations that might put a person in harm’s way. 

“Obviously this is the worst-case scenario, but in the event of a dangerous situation we’d have the capability to send in a robot,” said Paul Graf, Salesforce associate manager of physical security operations in Indianapolis. “We don’t want to send anyone into harm’s way, and deploying a droid can at least give us eyes on the situation and give us more detail.” 

Do office robots affect personal privacy? 

Unlike building turnstiles or badge checks at doors, the office robots don’t know who enters or exits a building. They don’t infringe on people’s personal privacy. 

“They don’t know who is in the building,” Mirakaj said. “They aren’t taking pictures of people and don’t know who is or isn’t an employee.” 

On the flip side, the Indianapolis office robot has become somewhat of a novelty and point of interest for employees. Graf, who posted a group Slack announcing when the robot arrived, said he has seen people curiously pop their heads out of an office or take a selfie with the robot. So far, employees at the Indianapolis office haven’t expressed any privacy concerns, but rather, intrigue.

“I first read about it in Slack and was curious,” said Chris Bezzy, Salesforce senior product manager, business technology for the future transformation of the company. “I’ve had some interactions. My co-workers in video calls noticed it before I did and would jokingly warn me that it was coming. It’s so quiet that you don’t realize it is coming around.” 

Blake Miller, a Salesforce senior director of product marketing in Indianapolis, said he wished they’d had a quick course to learn how to interact with the robot, but now doesn’t really notice it much.

“I wish it looked more like R2-D2 or BB-8 and had more of a personality,” Miller said. “Of course, that could be the slippery slope to the Terminator.”

Ari Bendersky Contributing Editor

Ari Bendersky is a Chicago-based lifestyle journalist who has contributed to a number of leading publications including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal magazine, Men's Journal, and many more. He has written for brands as wide-ranging as Ace Hardware to Grassroots Cannabis and is a lead contributor to the Salesforce 360 Blog. He is also the co-host of the Overserved podcast, featuring long-form conversations with food and beverage personalities.

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