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:

Other recent actions taken by Walmart suggest the company is relatively sensitive towards concerns about reduced job opportunities for humans. In October, the company introduced shelf-scanning robots in 50 US stores to help, rather than replace, employees tasked with replenishing missing and misplaced inventory. The company also says that as it adds more machines, it will find new roles for employees whose jobs get automated. Even so, it’s easy to imagine a future where the retail giant won’t need all of the 1.4 million people it currently employs in the US.

Indeed, as indicated by the rapid growth of Amazon’s human workforce in tandem with its growing cadre of robots, the embrace of these technologies does not necessarily destroy jobs in retail; it moves some of them from stores to warehouses and transforms other store positions into higher-touch customer service roles, such as McDonald’s indicated it would pursue last year in response to rising labor costs. While it is possible that Walmart embracing the automation of routine tasks like overnight cleaning could lead to some job losses, it could also free up employees’ time for higher-value work. The outcome depends on whether the company is aware of the labor market implications of its technology choices, which it does appear to be.