The nation’s largest private employer has unleashed an army of robots into more than 1,500 of its jumbo stores, with thousands of automated shelf-scanners, box-unloaders, artificial-intelligence cameras and other machines doing the jobs once left to human employees.
The swarm is already remaking how the retailer’s more than 1 million U.S. “associates” go about their daily work. Given the chain’s ubiquity across the country, the local Walmart store also is likely to become the first place millions of Americans meet a real-life, working robot.
Walmart executives have promised the all-hours robot workhorses will let employees endure less drudgery and enjoy “more satisfying jobs,” while also ensuring shoppers see cleaner stores, fuller shelves and faster checkouts.
But the rise of the machines has had an unexpected side effect: Their jobs, some workers said, 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.
Martin Hitch, the chief business officer of Bossa Nova Robotics, which makes Walmart’s inventory-scanning robots, said the company has spent years teaching its machines to be as human-friendly as possible. But there’s no agreed-upon etiquette for how robots and people should communicate.
Engineers did not, for instance, want the robot to silently skulk up and scare anyone — but how exactly should it announce itself? They tested a wide range of noises, from Road Runner-style “beep-beeps” to the honks of reversing forklifts before settling on a pleasant yet insistent chirp they mixed from a clip of birdsong.
“The last thing you want it to do is talk,” Hitch said. “Because if you talk, people think they can talk back.”
Monday, August 12, 2019
"some said the automated tedium is getting to them. The robots have taken away some simple pleasures, such as walking the store, and pigeonholed them into some smaller, mind-numbing tasks"
WaPo about robots at Walmart: