Walmart Workers Actually Like Their New Robot Coworkers

Walmart Workers Actually Like Their New Robot Coworkers

Last October, Walmart announced that it was rolling out shelf-scanning robots at 50 stores throughout the US after piloting them at a smaller number of locations in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and California. The robots are taking over some of the menial busywork that used to occupy employees on the store floor: checking shelves for out-of-stock items, incorrect prices, and wrong or missing labels.

At the MIT Technology Review, Erin Winick recently talked to Martin Hitch, chief business officer at Bossa Nova, the San Francisco-based robotics firm that created the machines, about how employees and customers were reacting to them. While you might expect employees to resent having their work automated or fear that the robots would put them out of a job, Hitch said employees “instantly become the advocates for the robot”:

One way they do that is by giving it a name—the robots all have Walmart name badges on. The employees have competitions to see what the right name is for each robot. They also advocate for the robot to the general public. It’s the store staff saying, “It’s helping me.” We see them now defending the robot.

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Teamsters Seek Protection Against Automation in UPS Contract

Teamsters Seek Protection Against Automation in UPS Contract

In the round of contract negotiations that began last week between the Teamsters Union and UPS, one of the union’s key demands is a pledge by the parcel delivery company not to use drones, driverless cars, or other automated technologies to do their jobs, Paul Ziobro reported at the Wall Street Journal. Negotiations over the collective bargaining agreement, which covers some 260,000 UPS employees, come at a time when e-commerce has drastically increased demand for more, better, faster delivery services, and UPS and its competitors are trying to keep pace.

In their 83-page draft of the updated contract, the Teamsters are also demanding a ban on deliveries after 9:00 p.m. and a commitment to hire another 10,000 workers, as well as safeguards allowing employees to refuse to work in unsafe conditions or overloaded trucks. The union is driving a hard bargain, as the labor market is tight and delivery companies are already having a hard time finding the workers they need.

Indeed, even as technology drives up demand for new roles in high-tech fields like software engineering and data science, the explosion of online retail is also expanding the market for warehouse and logistics workers to fulfill all those orders. Our research at CEB, now Gartner, bears out this trend: Our 2017 State of the Labor Market report, which CEB Recruiting Leadership Council members can access here, found that tractor-trailer driver was among the fastest-growing jobs in the US between 2016 and 2017, even as the scramble for tech talent captured the headlines.

Given the widespread concern that new technologies will displace millions of workers in routine jobs like transportation, it’s not surprising to see this issue come up in a union contract negotiation—and this won’t be the only time it does.

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Walmart Pilots Robot Floor Cleaners, Raising Automation Jitters

Walmart Pilots Robot Floor Cleaners, Raising Automation Jitters

Walmart, the largest private employer in the US, is testing a self-driving mechanical floor scrubber in five of its stores near its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, LinkedIn managing editor Chip Cutter noted in a recent blog post—and it’s not the only automated technology the big box giant is looking into:

The machine resembles a traditional scrubber but comes equipped with similar technology used in self-driving cars: extensive cameras, sensors, algorithms and Lidar for navigational mapping. Think of it as a Roomba crossed with a Tesla. A human must first drive the device to train it on a path; it can then operate largely independently, including when a store is open to customers. If a person or object gets in its way, it momentarily pauses and adjusts course. …

Walmart has said it wants to automate tasks that are “repeatable, predictable and manual,” giving its people more time to focus on higher-value work like customer service and selling.

Many of the menial tasks involved in retail work are ripe for automation, and Walmart is by no means the only major retailer experimenting with new technologies. Lowe’s rolled out an autonomous retail service robot called “LoweBot” in the San Francisco Bay Area last year, while Amazon continues to invest heavily in its robotic workforce. Being such a massive employer, however, Walmart can affect the entire US economy with its labor market decisions, so any changes it makes are bound to attract attention. In this case, Walmart’s move highlights concerns about the impact of automation on the workforce: What happens when the country’s largest employer no longer needs so many employees?

Yet Walmart is sensitive to this concern, Adam Pasick and Karen Hao write at Quartz, and has stressed that it is not using machines to replace employees:

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McKinsey: Up to 30 Percent of World’s Work Could Be Automated by 2030

McKinsey: Up to 30 Percent of World’s Work Could Be Automated by 2030

When it comes to the threat or promise of automation, experts are divided as to whether AI and robotics will eliminate jobs en masse or merely automate rote tasks and free up more of workers’ time for innovation and creativity. McKinsey has put out some interesting research throughout the year in which they attempt to forecast the impact of these new technologies on the workforce. In January, they released the attention-grabbing headline finding that half of the work currently performed by humans could be automated with already-existing technology. Though fewer than 5 percent of jobs can be automated entirely, their research found, most jobs could have at least one third of their component tasks automated today.

In an update to that work published this week, McKinsey takes a closer look at the various factors that will drive automation in the coming decades—such as technical feasibility, cost of deployment, and labor market considerations—and concludes that “between almost zero and 30 percent of the hours worked globally could be automated by 2030, depending on the speed of adoption.” The effects will not, however, be evenly distributed among occupations:

Activities most susceptible to automation include physical ones in predictable environments, such as operating machinery and preparing fast food. Collecting and processing data are two other categories of activities that increasingly can be done better and faster with machines. This could displace large amounts of labor—for instance, in mortgage origination, paralegal work, accounting, and back-office transaction processing. … Automation will have a lesser effect on jobs that involve managing people, applying expertise, and social interactions, where machines are unable to match human performance for now.

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What Jobs May Come From AI and Driverless Cars?

What Jobs May Come From AI and Driverless Cars?

With AI and machine learning taking on an increasingly major role in the workplace, prognosticators are divided on whether these technologies will result in the mass displacement of human workers or create so many new jobs that their net impact on employment is ultimately positive. In his latest piece for the Wall Street Journal, Greg Ip, a member of the techno-optimist camp, uses an example from the past to illustrate why he’s not worried about AI taking everyone’s jobs:

Until the 1980s, manipulating large quantities of data—for example, calculating how higher interest rates changed a company’s future profits—was time-consuming and error-prone. Then along came personal computers and spreadsheet programs … The new technology pummeled demand for bookkeepers: their ranks have shrunk 44% from two million in 1985, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet people who could run numbers on the new software became hot commodities. Since 1985, the ranks of accountants and auditors have grown 41%, to 1.8 million, while financial managers and management analysts, which the BLS didn’t even track before 1983, have nearly quadrupled to 2.1 million.

Just as spreadsheets drove costs down and demand up for calculations, machine learning—the application of AI to large data sets—will do the same for predictions, argue Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans and Avi Goldfarb, who teach at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Accordingly, Ip posits that AI and machine learning will make certain skills obsolete but open up new opportunities for more valuable and productive work that uses these technologies as tools to improve human decision-making. Deloitte US CEO Cathy Engelbert and managing director Scott Corwin recently advanced the same argument about self-driving cars and trucks at Quartz, dismissing fears that these technologies will kill jobs:

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A Digital Employee Wonders Whether to Self-Automate and Tell

A Digital Employee Wonders Whether to Self-Automate and Tell

Late last month at the Workplace Stack Exchange, a question-and-answer site for professionals about workplace ethics and etiquette, an anonymous programmer posed an intriguing question: “Is it unethical for me to not tell my employer I’ve automated my job?”

The employee, writing under the pseudonym Etherable, had been hired as a programmer for a job that turned out to amount to little more than “glorified data entry”; within a year, Etherable had figured out the organization’s legacy software system enough to write a program that has been doing most of their work for them for the past six months:

Now the problem is, do I tell them? If I tell them, they will probably just take the program and get rid of me. This isn’t like a company with tons of IT work – they have a legacy system where they keep all their customer data since forever, and they just need someone to maintain it. At the same time, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing the right thing. I mean, right now, once I get the specs, I run it through my program – then every week or so, I tell them I’ve completed some part of it and get them to test it. I even insert a few bugs here and there to make it look like it’s been generated by a human.

The question took off on the Workplace thread and was shared on Hacker News and Reddit. At Quartz, Keith Collins rounded up some of the most interesting responses:

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Is the Post-Work Future a Myth? Not for Everyone

Is the Post-Work Future a Myth? Not for Everyone

Central to the debate over automation and the future of work is the fear that robots and artificial intelligence will take over so much of the work people currently do that there will be no jobs left for human beings. Some believe we may be looking at a not-too-distant future of mass structural unemployment due to automation, while the more optimistic crowd contends that the current wave of automation will ultimately create more jobs than it destroys, just as the steam engine, the automobile, and the computer did in past periods of technological change. Political scientist Ruy Teixeira is in the second camp, arguing at Vox that the fears of a post-human workforce don’t square with the economic data:

If [futurist Martin] Ford’s “rise of the robots” were taking place, we would be seeing very rapid productivity increases today (fewer workers, larger output). We’re not. Instead, productivity increases have been abominably slow in recent years — a mere 1.3 percent per year, just over a third of the rate at the end of the last century.

Another indicator that the robots are gaining on us would be an exceptionally high rate of “occupational churn,” the rate at which the job structure is changing as some occupations decline and others grow. In a study of Census data going back to 1850, economists Robert Atkinson and John Wu found instead that the rate of churn in recent decades has been exceptionally slow — slower, in fact, than at any other period in their study.

Greg Ip made a similar point in the Wall Street Journal last month, also pointing to the slowdown in productivity and arguing that, if anything, robots aren’t taking over enough of our jobs. “Instead of worrying about robots destroying jobs,” Ip wrote, “business leaders need to figure out how to use them more, especially in low-productivity sectors.”

In these pieces, Teixeira and Ip write to dispel the “jobless future” hypothesis and do so quite effectively. Yes, this same debate occurred in the 1950s and yet we’re still here. But what makes this time different—and indeed it is different—is that technological change tends to proceed at an exponential rate, and we are reaching a point in which new technologies are rapidly making entire industries redundant.

This quality of rapid change cannot be said about people, and this includes our skills, our ability to adapt, and our willingness to change social and political norms. The difference in the speed of change is what makes this threat of a jobless future so real, even if productivity growth remains incremental.

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