Another mind-numbingly boring job is being taken over by robots.
This report from Linked In.
With its orange caution light, red bristles and bulky frame, the device looks like any other late-night floor cleaner, with one exception: No human is needed to operate it.
Walmart has quietly begun testing an advanced, autonomous floor scrubber during overnight shifts in five stores near the company’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., a move that could free workers from hours of drudgery, but that has already raised alarm among some employees. As the U.S.’s largest private-sector employer, Walmart is watched carefully for any shifts it makes to its workplace.
The machine resembles a traditional scrubber but comes equipped with similar technology used in self-driving cars: extensive cameras, sensors, algorithms and Lidar for navigational mapping. Think of it as a Roomba crossed with a Tesla. A human must first drive the device to train it on a path; it can then operate largely independently, including when a store is open to customers. If a person or object gets in its way, it momentarily pauses and adjusts course.
Walmart has said it wants to automate tasks that are “repeatable, predictable and manual,” giving its people more time to focus on higher-value work like customer service and selling. It is putting shelf-scanning bots in 50 stores to more accurately check prices and inventory, it announced last month. The company said the bots would not lead to a drop in headcount.
“Retailers are looking for opportunities to automate processes and stop paying people,” said Richard A. Feinberg, a professor of consumer sciences and retailing at Purdue University, who predicts automation will ripple through the retail industry over the coming years, touching everyone from delivery people to cashiers.
He said Walmart deserves credit for being willing to test and learn from new technology, and added it’s unclear if its experiment with the robotic cleaning machinery would ultimately cost jobs or affect workers’ hours.
“It changes the nature of the jobs; it may not mean fewer jobs, it may mean they can retrain the people to do things that are more useful for them, business wise,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it reduces headcount, but I don’t know.”
Cleaning aisle after aisle can take hours in particularly cavernous locations, and would seem to be a job that fits Walmart’s description of a repeatable, manual task ripe for automation.
The machine, with its top speed of 2.5 miles per hour in autonomous mode, slinks through stores, emitting a beep when it turns a blind corner. It will adjust its route if it encounters an obstacle, like a shopper or stocking cart.
Should it become trapped in an aisle, unable to exit on either end, it sends a distress signal, texting a photo of what its cameras see so a store employee — a human — can rescue it.
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