Walmart Debuts Robots to Make (Holiday) Shopping Better

Impact News Service

November 2, 2017

We are just 56 days until Christmas. Walmart is rolling out new technology in a few dozen stores that may take some of the frustration out of Christmas shopping this year.

Coming to over 50 Walmart stores is a two-foot-tall bot that will scan shelves for inventory that is out-of-stock, incorrectly labeled or priced, or missing labels.

While this is a job usually reserved for staff, currently, they only have time to scan shelves about twice a week. These robots can be deployed more frequently and with greater accuracy. According to Walmart, the robot can complete their scanning rounds 50% faster than their human counterparts. Staff can then replenish depleted items or fix problems.

“If you are running up and down the aisle and you want to decide if we are out of Cheerios or not, a human doesn’t do that job very well, and they don’t like it,” Jeremy King, chief technology officer for Walmart U.S. and e-commerce, told Reuters.

Even more than productivity, there’s an element of customer service that a robot can’t provide—at least not yet.

Shoppers will likely feel the difference. We’ve all visited a store and know how frustrating it is to find that an item is out of stock with no one to tell us if there’s more inventory in storage. Or maybe you’ve taken an item to the cashier only to learn that it rings up for more than the listed price because the item was on the wrong shelf.

Improved efficiency and customer experience is why other retailers like Amazon employs robots in their warehouses. We’ve seen fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s and sit-down restaurants use ordering kiosks.

To allay fears that this is another example of how robots are replacing American workers, let’s consider that these robots lack arms and the technology beyond censors to do more than scan and collect and report data. As one tech expert explains, that kind of sophisticated technology is way behind in development:

“It’s still really all about the A to Z process of capturing data, analyzing data, creating actions and then taking actions,” [Martin Hitch, Boss Nova Robotics’ chief business officer] said. “Within that, we’re good at doing a part of it, and we’re terrible at doing a part of it. When it comes to picking the product up, the robot has no arms. That’s a really difficult science, and it’s a slow, slow science. We know that the store associates will always be better at that.”

While the technology is slow to replace human workers, change is coming and it is important that policymakers, the private sector, and our education system consider how automation will impact our workforce in the coming decades.

New jobs and industries will spring up as a result of technology—even as low-skilled or automatable jobs disappear. The question is not how to stop technology, but how to prepare young people and workers with the skills to meet the changing economy.

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