Walmart Robots Are Making Human Workers Feel Like Machines. Is It Time For A Robo-Backlash?

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Written by Dana Sanchez
Walmart Robots
Walmart U.S. President and CEO Greg Foran talks about using a robot, right, to scan shelves and help employees with real-time inventory data at a Walmart Supercenter Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Automation has made major changes in the way Evan Tanner does his job at a Walmart Supercenter in Marietta, Ga.

A former department manager in the toys section, Tanner now has to pick up the slack of a much-reduced staff. After the Fast Unloader robot was brought in, he told the Washington Post, the store cut the number of workers it had unloading trucks. Tanner said he ended up with a lot more hours of putting away merchandise.

“The monotony in the store has increased a ton since we’ve gotten these robots. It’s insane,” he said. Freddy, the self-driving floor scrubber, is “basically just another employee.”

Many Walmart workers said they worried that robots would one day take their jobs, but they didn’t expect to have to babysit them as well.

The robots can be as clumsy and baffled by the messy realities of big-box retail as a human worker can be, Washington Post reported.

In theory, robots are supposed to take over manual and repetitive tasks, like taking inventory, scrubbing floors or spotting spills and messes, Chris Albrecht wrote for The Spoon, a website that gives insight on the food tech revolution. “But at least initially, the theory of robots being efficient helpers is running into some harsh realities … there seems to be a mismatch between the customer expectations, robot design, and the tasks being handed over to robots.”

The interplay of man vs. machine could become one of the defining tensions of the modern workplace as more stores, hotels, restaurants and other businesses roll in robots that could boost company reliability and trim labor costs, Drew Harwell wrote for Washington Post.

Some workers feel the robots are just making more work for them and forcing them to constantly have to respond to the machines’ needs and alerts.

Robots are having an unexpected side effect and some workers said their jobs have never felt more robotic. “By incentivizing hyper-efficiency, the machines have deprived the employees of tasks they used to find enjoyable. Some also feel like their most important assignment now is to train and babysit their often inscrutable robot colleagues,” Harwell wrote.

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Here are some examples of what Walmart robots do:

  • The Fast Unloader machines scan and sort freight as it comes off shipping trucks.
  • Auto-S camera robots scan shelves to see which products are mislabeled or out of stock.
  • Giant orange obelisks, called automated pickup towers, spit out goods for online shoppers like 16-foot-tall vending machines.
  • Alphabots bring items to workers for packing.
  • Auto-C robot Zambonis buff the floors at night.

One Walmart Neighborhood Market in Levittown, N.Y., has cameras and weight sensors that automatically detect when the shopping-cart pen is empty and the bananas are overripe. But the technology can only do so much. When the AI senses a problem, it sends an alert to the handheld devices most Walmart workers carry, saying it is time to corral the carts or replenish the produce. The store’s 100 human associates are the ones who do the physical work.

Some workers find themselves in the uneasy position of not only training their possible replacements but also babysitting them when things go wrong.

A Walmart spokesperson told Gizmodo that the robots give employees a break from “extremely mundane and repetitive” tasks like sitting on a floor scrubber for two hours a day or scanning thousands of inventory labels manually.

But self-driving floor scrubbers have to be manually driven until they learn the store’s layout. When aisles are shifted around, which is often, the machines have to be retrained, Washington Post reported.

Human customers also have to be trained not to push the robots’ buttons,
not to kick and shove them, not to follow them around, record them, or talk to them.

Walmart said it has reduced worker turnover to the lowest level in five years, and that more than 40,000 U.S. workers are in jobs that did not exist two years ago. Most of the company’s 1 million-plus U.S. workers make an average of about $14.26 an hour, according to Walmart.

Today’s automation efforts were not designed to boost productivity but to replace it, by swapping out humans for cheaper machines, said
Boston University and MIT economists Pascual Restrepo and Daron Acemoglu, in a Washington Post interview: “That could make workers’ lives worse, they said, ‘if these new technologies are not great but just ‘so-so’ ‘ — good enough to be adopted but not that much more productive than the people they pushed out.”

Retailers will have to figure out the right balance to avoid a robot-driven backlash, Albrecht wrote in The Spoon.