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Walmart says its new robots will make human employees happier

Thousands of robots will soon start mopping floors and checking inventory in Walmarts across the US.

Wal-Mart Announces Its Increasing Wages Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Walmart is adding thousands of robots to its workforce, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

The company is the largest employer in the United States, with 1.5 million people currently on its payroll. Soon, it will also have 1,500 autonomous floor-cleaning robots, 300 shelf-scanning robots to check inventory, 1,200 delivery-sorting robots to collaborate with the shelf-scanning robots, and 900 automated “pickup towers” for online orders. The numbers are substantial, but still fairly small considering Walmart operates 4,600 stores in the US.

And the retailer has already gone on a press push to frame these additions as, ultimately, a favor for the people who work for Walmart. John Crecelius, senior vice president for central operations in the US, told Adweek on Wednesday that Walmart employees “immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual,” and that they were glad to have their time freed up to focus on “selling merchandise and serving customers, which they [say has] always been the most exciting parts of working in retail.”

A 2017 study conducted by the investment firm Cornerstone Capital Group predicted that between 6 million and 7.5 million retail industry jobs would be “vulnerable to automation” in the coming decade — in other words, close to half. The study concluded that cashier and inventory ordering jobs would be eliminated first, and that more physically or emotionally demanding jobs like freight handling and customer service would be mostly safe for the foreseeable future.

Elizabeth Walker, a manager of brand content at Walmart, reiterated to Adweek, “The idea is that by leaning into the future, associates will be able to have more satisfying jobs as retail continues to change.”

Walmart started testing this technology in 2017 and added a small number of robots to some stores in 2018. It comes from the Pittsburgh-based startup Bossa Nova Robotics, whose co-founder and chief technology officer Sarjoun Skaff told TechCrunch on Wednesday, “Our robot doesn’t have arms right now, so it’s not replacing the manual labor of restocking a shelf. It’s displacing the tedious task of looking for problems, which is really mind-numbing.”

This is the paradox of automation. It’s easy to agree that mopping a floor is not exactly a thrill, and that robots can probably do it better and faster. We can see that people do not like doing boring and repetitive tasks. At the same time, we can see that people like to be employed and make enough money to live.

Automation is not a clean process, and many workers will spend months or years teaching machines how to do their jobs before they ultimately lose them. Is that as “exciting” as interacting with customers? Is interacting with customers for an entire shift and losing the reprieve provided by solitary or simple tasks really as pleasant as Walmart HQ would have you believe?

Walmart has already been an industry leader in replacing cashier jobs — supposedly too menial and boring for human employees to tolerate — with self-checkout stations. “Self-service checkout supervisor” jobs mostly entail standing and watching people to make sure they don’t steal, but they’re positioned as an opportunity for advancement.

In October, Adrian Beck, a researcher in the department of criminology at the University of Leicester who has led the most extensive studies on self-checkout theft, told Vox, “There are a number of reasons why retailers have invested in self-scan technologies. The first and most important is that it enables them to reduce their costs considerably. The largest proportion of a retailer’s cost is their wage bill.” In one store he studied, he saw a supervisor tasked with overseeing 23 self-checkouts at once.

At the time, focused on the self-checkout technology replacing human jobs with poorly done automation, I wrote:

Walmart is the largest employer in the United States, and therefore defines what it means to be an American service worker. The company has a storied tradition of labor law violations, and a list of settlements longer than even a world-champion shoplifter’s haul diary, stemming from massive groups of workers alleging that they’ve been denied lunch breaks and overtime pay, illegally fired for participating in union activities, punished for taking medical leave, and held below the poverty line by an hourly wage rate that has barely budged since the 1980s.

Walmart did not invent the argument that giving menial tasks to robots will make human workers happier, but it is — like Amazon, its biggest competitor, whose semi-automated warehouses have so far served as a dark case study in what human morale can withstand — in a position to attempt to prove it.

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