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.
That’s because the part of the job the robots are taking over is a boring task that no employee particularly enjoys performing. (As for customers, Hitch noted, some are curious to know how the robots work, but most just ignore them.) Taking Hitch’s claims at face value, this anecdote bolsters the techno-optimist view that automation will ultimately be more helpful than harmful to workers.
Concerns remain, however, that the embrace of automated technologies by Walmart, the world’s largest private employer, could result in some significant amount of job loss, even though the big-box retailer has said it plans to retrain employees displaced by automation for new roles. Robots and other forms of automation are inevitably making their presence felt in retail, which involves a lot of the kind of mindless, repetitive work robots are good at. Humans will still be needed in retail stores to do more complex jobs and provide high-touch customer service, but some fear that it’s only a matter of time before robots master these skills as well.