Robots are already a common sight in warehouses (Amazon alone use over 45,000) but currently they’re moving into stores too. Walmart has announced it’s deploying shelf-scanning bots in fifty locations round the us, using the machines to check things like inventory, prices, and misplaced things. The retailing giant says the robots’ introduction won’t lead to job losses, and that the corporate needs to save workers from carrying out tasks that are “repeatable, predictable, and manual.”
The robots themselves are produced by California-based Bossa nova robotics, and are about two-feet tall with an extendable tower containing lights and sensors for scanning shelves. They sit in recharging stations within the store until a human worker gives them a “mission” — e.g. checking a specific aisle to see what wants re-stocking. The robots are supposed to save workers’ time, but Walmart says it’ll also use the info they collect to improve efficiency nationwide.
“If you think about trying to go through a facility with all these different [items] and find out if your costs are accurate, it can be very time-consuming,” John Crecelius, Walmart’s vice president of central operations, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “From our perspective, once you are doing things like this you are trying to improve your service to your customers and trying to make things easier and easier for your associates at the same time.”
Demonstrating the robots’ usefulness is easy enough, but Walmart’s claim that their deployment won’t lead to job losses is harder to prove. just because you don’t fire a human the moment you buy a robot, doesn’t mean you won’t hire fewer humans further down the line. And though economists and other forecasters disagree about whether the present wave of automation is going to lead to widespread job losses, at least some studies show that once you get more (industrial) robots in any geographic area, you get fewer jobs and lower wages. whether or not the same holds true of shelf-scanning bots will no doubt be the topic of future studies.
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