Walmart says robot army will assist workers, not replace them

walmart robot army
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ITEM: After testing robots in a handful of stores to perform menial tasks from human employees. Walmart says it will add thousands more robots this year across more of its stores. And to hear Walmart tell it, that’s actually good news for its employees.

Walmart spent 2018 testing robots that roam the store performing tasks like cleaning floors and scanning items on store shelves to ensure availability, correct shelf location, and verify price accuracy. On Tuesday, Elizabeth Walker of Walmart Corporate Affairs said in a blog post that the tests have gone so well that the retail giant is going all-in on robot helpers, and will be deploying:

  • 1,500 new autonomous floor cleaners
  • 300 additional shelf-scanning robots
  • 1,200 more “FAST” Unloaders (robots that share data with the shelf scanner and automatically scan and sort items unloaded from trucks by priority and department to move inventory from the back room to the sales floor).

While the concept of robots doing manual tasks sounds like bad news for employees (or “associates”, as they’re known in Walmart-speak), Walmart’s Walker insists that the robots aren’t replacing anyone, likening them more to assistants that will free up employees to do other things.

And employees are reportedly happy about this, she says in her blog post:

Walmart has been piloting these different technologies for months now, and the response from associates has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Our associates immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual, “said John Crecelius, senior vice president of Central Operations for Walmart US. “It allows them time to focus more on selling merchandise and serving customers, which they tell us have always been the most exciting parts of working in retail.”

It’s worth noting that Walmart isn’t adopting a robot workforce simply to give its employees better things to do – it’s also looking for ways to beef up its online retail business. According to The Verge, whatever the fate of low-wage workers in its stores, Walmart is currently hiring people for its online grocery business.

Ironically, the article says, that’s partly because Amazon is now encroaching on Walmart’s brick-and-mortar grocery business with Whole Foods. In other words, the more Amazon extends its e-commerce business into the physical world, the more pressure Walmart faces to build up its e-commerce capabilities by maximizing use of its physical stores.

“Walmart is trying to leverage its brick-and-mortar store locations at a time when many competitors have closed their brick-and-mortar stores,” says Arthur Wheaton, director of Western NY Labor and Environmental Programs for the Worker Institute at Cornell University.

For example, Walmart is turning its physical stores into pick-up points for online purchases. In the same blog post unveiling its robot spending spree, Walmart’s Walker also said the company is deploying 900 new “pickup towers” – essentially big vending machines that store items ordered online by customers who opt for “in store pickup” as a delivery option. Employees load the ordered item in the tower, but it’s likely a matter of time before in-store robots take over that task as well.

Walmart’s assurances that it’s not replacing humans with robots probably won’t sound convincing to critics who have long accused Walmart of unfair employee policies, from low wages and working conditions to union-busting and surveillance. Even if you don’t classify Walmart as deliberately evil by default, its PR spin of robots being employee “sidekicks” (like R2D2 in Star Wars!) is laying it on a bit thick. And in any case, there remains the overall concern about the extent to which automation will ultimately put people out of work.

According to this article on Fast Company, there are already examples of automation ultimately creating more jobs than they kill. Looking at e-commerce specifically, a recent paper from the Progressive Policy Institute [PDF] found that while the rise of e-commerce from 2007 to 2017 resulted in 140,000 brick-and-mortar jobs being lost in the US, it also created 400,000 new e-commerce jobs at e-commerce companies and fulfillment centers – and those jobs often pay better than the ones that were cut.

Wheaton of Cornell University agrees that retail robots and other automation-related technologies don’t always result in fewer workers. However, he adds, “They tend to displace lower wage workers doing repetitive tasks and increase higher paid workers designing software, maintenance and installation.”

Bear in mind that the employees taking those new higher-paying jobs aren’t necessarily the same ones who lost the old jobs in the first place. That said, a December 2017 study from McKinsey Global Institute [PDF] estimates that while 400 million workers globally may see their jobs displaced by automation between 2016 and 2030 (around 15% of the workforce, assuming a moderate pace of automation technology adoption), only around 75 million (3% of the global workforce) would have to actually switch occupations completely – the rest could be upgraded or reskilled in their current occupations. Whether that actually happens depends on a number of factors, the report cautions, not least being governments and businesses providing transition support for affected employees.

Anyway, it’s encouraging that Walmart sees robots as assistants rather than replacements. For now.

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