So i wonder why wal-mart is investing in robots to fill this role, when there are so many other important jobs that they could automate instead. and the answer i land on is that the quantity-on-hand is critically important if you're using the store as a warehouse for a local delivery operation. If you've advertised something as in-stock for same-day delivery on your website, and then you let customers in to browse around your warehouse and move things around, having roaming scanners checking for mis-homed items is suddenly a lot more important.
I dunno if people expect there to be this huge warehouse of stock "out the back" of every supermarket with loads of shelves holding tins of beans or loaves of bread or whatever just sitting there. The shop floor was the "back room"!
I used to just tell folks that what they see is everything we had, so if they cant see it then we dont have it.
Even with fancy modelling and "just-in-time" delivery stock-outs still happen - I remember one year working on the last weekend before Christmas. We "sold out" of turkeys - in reality it was just that people had them in their trolleys and hadn't checked-out yet so people were stealing them out of other customer's trolleys when they weren't looking! Happy Xmas! :-)
When they get more capable robots, they will replace more jobs.
As it stands total cost to fix an individual shelving problem likely dropped. In this case it'd be surprising if Walmart employed more people to fix shelving problems, but in other contexts we may have seen induced demand for more employees because the ROI for employee time improved.
Not all increases in efficiency reduce the # of total jobs, we should expect to see the total # of jobs increase in some circumstances.
The robot will scan the shelves in a pattern, followed by a stocker with a cart to collect all the misplaced items. It will print shelf labels, without the need for a stocker to use a cumbersome printer relatively slowly.
It also to me seems it might be a way for them to in-house inventory control services like RGIS, using robots to replace human counters. If it can detect misplaced items, one day it might be able to count placed items.
If the current robot signals something is out of stock but a human determines the robot is incorrect then it means the store map is wrong or the product identification needs work. Once the error rate is low enough then full shelf packing can be implemented.
since wal mart doesn't close stores often or deal with private stores I am curious how they account for take backs from such. that alone can upset the inventory of any business.
accurate inventory is so key with both the seller and supplier. I am not surprised they want to focus there. plus another issue is shrink, by having robots fulfill the role the chance of it vanishing on a count is gone
...which is bullshit; Walmart just doesn't want the "robots taking our jobs" angle here. If they consider the current level at which employees help customers in the aisles sufficient, then they'll be cutting jobs to match that level rather than "freeing up" employees to do more of it.
It doesn't take too many 30% years to go from $170 to $485 Billion (not that they'll continue at that pace, but shit, this is year 23 for AMZN, and their growth is still incredible, [AWS, AWS, AWS]).
It almost seems too obvious to say, but computers have different strengths and weaknesses to humans.
There are also social factors involved that may be advantageous to machines. Self-checkout machines offer an objectively worse experience most of the time, but a lot of shoppers prefer them. Some customers don't want to interact with a human cashier. Some will be buying embarrassing items and prefer the apparent anonymity of self-checkout. There's also a subtlety in how the self-checkout machines are arranged - because there's usually a common queue for several machines, customers don't feel pressured to finish their transaction quickly.
Shoppers may prefer being assisted by a robot for a variety of reasons, even if the robot isn't quite as good as the average human worker.
I admit this isn't a very rational response, though, because I'm fine with self-service airport check-ins and generally pretty happy to talk to a machine rather than a human.
All I have to do in a staffed checkout is remove items from my cart and place them on the belt. The cashier scans them, and can begin this task while I'm still emptying the cart. And most of the time, the cashier is practiced at this task and can do it quickly. When I'm in a self-checkout I see seconds wasted per item as people turn them over and around one-by-one to find where the bar code is.
And the staffed checkout usually has another person to bag the items, and again can begin doing this while the cashier scans more items, collects payment, etc.
At a self-checkout I'm doing all these tasks myself, stepwise because the computer insists that I bag each item before I scan the next one.
Things are different for genocide that hasn’t happened yet. If people have left the UK and formed the United States which is far more successful currently, why not just kill all the citizens of the UK? Obviously the US is homo superious.
Would no one shed a tear?
At least in my mind, genocide is unnatural.
If the saber-toothed tiger died out because they were out-competed by the other species around them, we call that natural selection. If the Carthaginians died out because their neighbors had a better fighting force, we call that genocide. But the only difference is... what, exactly?
Also, incidentally, this outcome is consistent with a couple of centuries of economic history.
1: No, these jobs aren't great compared to classic middle class jobs. But going from shelf stocker or check out clerk to Instacart shopper and/or Uber driver isn't obviously a step backwards on net.
Mind you, if they didn't insist on moving everything to increase customer circulation ...
That blew my mind.
I think there's a huge age gap when it comes to preference for human vs mechanical interface. Until the older generation dies out these sort of redundant service jobs will exist. As they say, sometimes progress only happens one funeral at a time.
There's a point where your life works fine and you don't particularly need to change it or learn radically new things unless you have no other option at all. In some ways, the old actions have their own benefits. The senior goes to cash her paper check at the bank because it gets her out of the house and in front of people; she saves the money on a cell phone that she doesn't use much because she stays home more than travels at her age.
Even with computers...she doesn't feel helpless or at the mercy of technology she doesn't understand. She might even reduce her vulnerability some that way; a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
I can self-checkout, or at some supermarkets self-scan (using a handheld scanner), but I chose the human checkout operator. It's partly economic, the supermarket doesn't discount my shop if I do the checkout work myself, so I extract a modicum of their takings towards wages for a local person rather than have it go to shareholder profit. People here need jobs.
Also there is a difference between a rationalization for a behavior and the actual behavior. Usually the rationale is actually created afterwards. Although certainly some people must have created a deliberate policy to support employment or simply out of preference for human interaction. But my supposition was just about the check depositing.
Regardless, keeping people in menial jobs is not optimal for them or for consumers and almost certainly not a policy that will generally persist when more capable AIs are available.
"Keeping" people in menial jobs isn't the issue. When the robot takes over it's because the owner-capitalists can make more profit by cutting the proles out of the loop.
It's not the job, it's money to pay for water+food+shelter that's the issue.
If rich capitalists are happy to give up their profits to make an equal society with few menial roles then your way s works. There's no evidence that's the case and lots of evidence against it.
Over the last 30 years, more than half of bank branches in the UK have closed. Many older customers have been substantially inconvenienced by these closures, but they're on the wrong side of economics. Beyond a certain point, it's just no longer financially viable to keep a branch open. A lot of older people prefer DVDs to online streaming, but good luck finding a rental store in most towns.
The social effects may well be very ugly, but I think that most businesses will be quite ruthless about their deployment of automation. They clearly have no qualms about the impact on jobs and I don't think that they'll care if some proportion of their customer base is marginalized.
(Edit: But I don't shop at Walmart...)
You see another robot going in the direction of aisle 7, but forget it immediately as unimportant. While following the robot something catches your attention (slight disorder in neatly ordered merchandise? You don't reflect on that because...) you see a thing you didn't bothered to search for, but... To the robot: "Organic food is healthier, right? Let's go."
So Walmart Employees, if this is you:
I'm sorry but if you want to keep working at Walmart, time to step up your game, learn some English and be more responsive. Otherwise, I'll happily accept a response from the robot over your indifference if it helps me get to the product I need to find quicker.
> I'm sorry but if you want to keep working at Walmart, time to step up your game, learn some English and be more responsive.
I'm sorry but it's not your place to threaten Walmart employees. You'll have to leave that to Walmart management.
Any Walmart in town.
Just two days ago, our internal company newsletter announced a purchase of another industrial robot, and the newsletter said it is meant to "help/relieve our employees with doing monotonous tasks". In the office, we all read this and were "yeah, right; what you actually mean is 'let us get rid of those employees who are currently hired for doing those monotonous tasks'...".
Coincidentally, "tasks that aren't intrinsically fulfilling for humans" is pretty much synonymous for work, if it would be fulfilling by itself then quite likely that it'd be or become an unpaid hobby instead of a paid job.
My only complaint in the previous comment is about the PR double-speak. We all know that when a company purchases automation, it's meant to replace human workers. But companies won't honestly admit it.
The Mondragon umbrella of cooperatives in Spain, a multi-billion dollar corporation had to cut down employees during the recession. But instead of simply firing people, they were given options including offers to re-skill and compensation (like commute). The whole corporation paid for this. Even in this ultra hostile capitalist world, we've now a case where a large scale cooperative can survive the cycle of capitalistism's overproduction and over-exploitation.
Ofc this is all work in progress, and nobody knows what problems it will face. But certainly we need to do something about the current Capitalism.
Some would say the "robots taking our jobs" angle is also bullshit.
Damn tractors/threshers/combines, taking all of our jobs....
Living standards did rise eventually, but there was a considerable lag. Initial income rises were at costs of health and of hard work, at a pace dictated by the master, for all the family.
I fear we'll see very similar patterns again.
Personally, I want to see up-to-date retail stock mapping (that I can search)
Walmart is testing a robot from Bossa Nova (Pittsburgh and SF)
Just got from Lowes and they do it on the web and in their app. Search for an item, and if it is in stock it will show you its location on the store map.
OTOH, every Walmart I've visted is unable to keep their shelves full.  How hard it is to keep something non-perishable (like deodorant) in stock? Somehow Target figured that out.
I bought a water softener at HomeDepot about three weeks ago. Initially went to my local Lowes where I had checked if one was in stock and at the store. Yes and Yes. Get to Lowes and there is no water softener, as the website indicated. Lowe's employee checked the back as well, wasn't there.
There are many problems with humans doing this "inventory business" at $10 an hour or so. The professional counts that happen once or so a year by outside agencies wouldn't be necessary otherwise.
To be fair, I've had issues at Home Depot as well... lots of; "The computer says there are 2 in stock... I have no idea where they are."
That would just leave theft, which is usually predictable with ML (this being part of what loyalty cards are for), and doesn’t happen at all for most low/medium-ticket items.
Everything gets stolen. Mostly by employees. When I worked retail somebody got away with a treadmill. Just wheeled out the door on a cart, nobody said a thing. Later I was looking for a treadmill after a customer had checked the online stock count, and the system was off by three, not just the one I knew had disappeared.
The other big problem with the counts is just stuff moving around the store. It's a limited physical space, and it isn't all merchandised according to the book. Un-recorded promo displays get set up, things get moved onto top shelves and departments where they don't belong.
Obviously it's not the only explanation, but I assume they use marketing research to help decide what inventory counts to display
Isn’t something Walmart doesn’t want you to have? Having a mapping means being more efficient when shopping in the store, which means less time in it and so less opportunities to buy things.
It was basically something like the following:
"This is no good - if the search results are too good then people won't stay on our page long enough to see the ads"
This is basically what triggered them to start their own company instead of licensing the tech (I'm remembering most of this from In The Plex which I read a while back).
Basically it's stupid not to make the core thing better - especially in the case where Walmart's real competition is Amazon.
If you search an item in the Walmart mobile app, it will tell you the aisle that the item is in, in the store you are in (there is an automatically-entered "store mode" that is driven by location detection.)
They have all the data across 5,000 stores and >100,000 SKUs. The robot helps ensure that customers haven't moved items from where they are supposed to be.
Oh no, it's _ugly_!
Lots of store websites have a feature where you select a location and it tells you whether a product is in stock or not (and often how much is in stock).
I'd like to think anybody out of a job can just be smart and entrepreneurial and create some other new value people are willing to pay for, but I'm not sure everyone's cut out for that, or how much interest markets have for most of that kind of stuff. Many more small business fail than succeed. Maybe keeping some dumb, honest jobs around would help keep the balance.
The problem is that to get that initial investment money you need to work, and the jobs that you're doing to earn that money are disappearing due to automation. So you fall one side of the divide or the other - if you're already rich you'll get richer, if you're not rich your opportunities to become rich are disappearing.
This is probably the most textbook spin I've ever seen. It's as if their PR firm didn't even try.
These robots are obviously being deployed to increase margins.
Personally I would have went for the "adding more value" angle, either by suggesting to the customer that "Your favourite product is more likely to be on shelves", or positioning these robots as "helpers" to shelf-stackers.
That's exactly the spin the company that makes the robot is using: http://www.bossanova.com
Bossanova's pitch to Walmart: Our robots will increase your margins.
Walmart's internal comms: Our new robots will help our associates save time to focus on other tasks that help our customers.
Walmart's external PR: Our new robot associates will ensure that your favorite product is more likely to be on shelves.
Why? It seems extremely arcane to still use paper price labels in 2017, especially for stores as big and centrally run as Walmart.
With digital price labels you can update prices centrally across the whole country within seconds, and it costs basically nothing to implement too, when the labor cost of manually updating paper price labels are factored in.
Now imagine thru some method, they could tell which shopper was nearby shelves, looking - and who they were. Do a instant credit check lookup (perhaps with something special with the credit bureaus that don't put a ding on the report), to find out what that nearby shopper is "worth".
Then instantly change the prices in that one area of the store - perhaps to gain just a few more pennies from a wealthy customer, or maybe (perhaps) to try to steer a customer to a particular brand who has paid the store for this purpose (by changing the prices of other brands to be higher, so that the buyer might go for the lower priced item if they are on a lower economic rung - or vice-versa to get them to buy a higher-cost item for perceived "luxury").
This would be easily possible with today's technology. It wouldn't be cheap to implement, and likely the back-end systems are so f-d up that it would take a revamp or a lot of work to get everything talking together properly, plus the attendant tech to recognize shoppers (cell phone IMEI? facial rec? something)...
...but I am certain that if the profit motive was there, and it offset those costs, it would be done. And Walmart would likely do it, too.
I find that hard to believe, given the scale of Walmart's operations - they have close to 5000 stores, and who knows how much technical debt they have in their stocking/inventory systems.
I don't understand the technical debt argument though - if a robot can scan prices to check that they are correct, a display should be able to display the price without any issue. The prices are obviously accedible in a database.
Electronic shelf labels could facilitate dynamic price changes, but this is likely to be highly unpopular with customers. The mere presence of ESLs could imply volatile or manipulative pricing and undermine customer trust.
It definitely does that for me. The heuristic I use in life is very simple - if it can be done and makes economic sense, it will be done. Volatile pricing can be done with electronic signs, and it definitely could seem to make economic sense to some companies.
Our BestBuy alternative Power actually had a big ad campaign last year about how their digital signs and their price robot allows them to offer lower prices than what their competitors offer.
Eh. Don't be so sure of this.
Yes, this technology exists. No, it's typically not feasible to implement. The ROI simply doesn't make sense.
Each store houses about 250,000 unique products. That means you'll need that many digital price tags. If they're $4 a peice (highly unlikely), thats 1M per store - and that's only in the new hardware.
You also need to test different environments - will it work in freezers, coolers, and under heated lamps (150F temperatures)? Do those places have wifi access?
Then you need to test and update the wireless infrastructure. Adding 250k devices to a network is not a small task.
Then update whatever software exists to send out price updates. This is honestly the cheapest part, all things considered. And it can be applied to the whole chain / store by store, depends on the roll out strategy.
All in all, it's at least 1 million per store. A brand new store costs the same amount. So you'd also be paying for the opportunity cost of not opening a new store. So you'd also lose out on the potential revenue of that new store.
There's other factors to consider, but the math never shakes out positively. There are bigger fish to fry than price tags.
"Supercenters average 187,000 square feet, employ 350 or more associates on average and offer 142,000 different items."
> If they're $4 a peice (highly unlikely)
looks like they're maybe $10 per on alibaba, in lowish volumes.
> You also need to test different environments - will it work in freezers, coolers, and under heated lamps (150F temperatures)?
they can just go check out any of the many places that already use such tags, and note that they work fine.
> Do those places have wifi access?
> Adding 250k devices to a network is not a small task.
they use 433MHz ISM, and don't screw around with IP networking. here's an example device on alibaba
> There's other factors to consider, but the math never shakes out positively. There are bigger fish to fry than price tags.
they're used in hazel's in boulder, co. pretty sure i've seen them used in some other stores, though names aren't coming to mind at the moment.
And doing the math here, it appears to be circa $3m in just capex per new store: https://corporate.walmart.com/_news_/news-archive/2014/02/20...
I'm also suspicious of your claim of opportunity cost. Walmart has circa 6k stores and has annual profits in the $15 billion range, and the ability to tap the capital markets as needed. They appear to be able to afford both new stores and price tags.
I think soon a lot of supermarkets will do same day delivery so you order your food during the day and it gets delivered to you at home the same evening. Or they may implement a system where you order online and you've given a collection time.
Either way going into a supermarket and browsing up and down the isles will become less and less popular so it wouldn't make sense for supermarkets to invest in electronic price tags. I don't know for sure but that's how I see it going.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a single company that relies solely on digital processes. In terms of digitalisation everyone seems to be talking about AI, AR, robotics and technologies like Blockchain. However, while certainly interesting those aren't the main avenues for bringing about digital transformation.
Replacing paper-based processes and doing away with the need for physical presence to conduct business are.
So, Walmart will soon have robots running up and down their aisles while at the same time we still largely rely on paper for invoicing and accounting.
We'll soon have self-driving cars for all our wonderful commuting but we still haven't figured out how to use technology for remote working to make travelling to a ridiculously expensive place called 'office' a thing of the past.
A company the size of Walmart would need to employ many lawyers just to deal with state to state pricing laws.
I mean...we have something like this already with climate control and thermostats in offices and stores. The central control can screw up spectacularly at times,
The whole thing where it checks if something is in bagging area seems to be pretty buggy in most of the stores where I've used them.
I visited a Walmart last week and notice they had converted 1/3 of the normal checkout aisles to self-checkout stations. They left the conveyor belts in and I noticed how people still used the conveyor belts the same way whether there was a line or not, unloading each item onto it before scanning them all.
How do you pick between buying wheat and taking it to the miller (preserving his job) and buying flour from the grocer?
Do you seek out gas stations that still pump gas for you?
Do you worry that buying a fuel efficient vehicle or insulated building can have a negative impact on people working for energy producers?
What requires me to go all the way down the rabbit hole? Everybody has moral beliefs that they don't follow to their extremist conclusions. I see people getting laid off or turnover being allowed to happen - I see that the replacement job for a cashier gig is sometimes even worse - I do my little part to make society a little less bad. I also don't feel that pure individualism is really the way to live so I do sacrifice a bit of a wait in line and hopefully it helps the girl that checked me out keep that gig for a little bit longer.
All you're really doing is creating more pointless work to treat the symptoms.
If pointless work is the best we've got that's fine by me just as long as someone's getting paid on the other end.
Besides if you're sick and know you won't be cured for quite a while you might treat the symptoms as well. Treating the symptoms isn't bad as long as we don't forget to also treat the cause.
What? I just assumed that everyone optimized for the minimization of time spent waiting in line. Personally, I'd never wait in line for self checkout if a cashier was idle!
Definitely. Our average grocery bill ranges from maybe USD $50 to $125 (we're empty nesters), so 1% of that would be noise level. Heck, back when baggers accepted tips, I always tipped at least $1 (when I was a teenaged grocery bagger it was for tips only); that's more than the 1% would be.
I'll be using epsilon to describe these quirks from now on :-)
Meanwhile, self checkouts are slow as hell, cumbersome, and double check everything you do, but still manage to not stop theft. Not to mention many purchases need a human in the loop anyway, and the amount of times other shoppers spend ten full minutes also fighting with the things, but without the understanding of the back end POS software, and you could easily replace a group of 4 self checkouts with the one person being paid to watch them anyway
"Over the years, Hanway and his umbrella fell victim to all sorts of abuse from Brits he passed on the sidewalk. The most pernicious abuse came from an unlikely source: coach drivers. In England at the time, hansom cabs (two-wheeled, horse-drawn carriages) and sedan chairs were the primary modes of transportation. Business boomed especially on rainy days, as both hansom cabs and sedan chairs came equipped with small canopies that kept passengers dry. When it rained, Londoners flocked to these coaches, so Hanway’s umbrella represented a threat to business.
Fearing an interruption in their personal incomes, many hansom cab drivers and sedan chair carriers grew violent toward Hanway. According to the British history magazine Look and Learn, when they saw him walking by, they often “pelted him with rubbish.” On one occasion, a hansom cab driver even tried to run Hanway over with his coach. Hanway reacted by using his umbrella to “give the man a good thrashing.”" - https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-public-shaming-of-...
Can’t buy booze in self checkout (in CA).
Plus you need someone to verify the customer is not already drunk - selling to someone who is already visibily intoxicated is a great way to a lawsuit.
I will always vote for raising the minimum wage but at the same time I know it probably makes automation more attractive.
But while I agree there is an impact, I also don't think we should avoid automation simply to have someone doing a mindless job if it could effectively be automated. People don't necessarily need jobs, they need the resources that having a job allows them access to.
If you’ve ever been to a Walmart at 2am, you know that this isn’t true. A lot of people will lose jobs over this.
I'd also be interested in learning about the false positives. For example a product get turned around on the shelf or returned askew does that trigger an alert? And is that a good or bad thing?
I guess the proof will be in the pudding. If these are still in use two or three years from now then we know they were a success.
From a personal perspective I'd love these to improve me locate products within a store. Many stores still fail to tell you which shelf a product is on on their mobile app, and the few that day don't give you a map of the store showing you the literal location of it. I'd love to have a "Google Maps"-like experience with locating an item.
In the end, the robot is already higher on the ladder than the humans.
In situations designed for robots, like Amazon warehouses, they don't have a problem stocking shelves as long as the range of required behavior is much more restricted so the instrumentation can be more rugged and less articulate.
I always thought it was amusing when people said it would replace burger flippers and the like. Why? They're cheap, and that's relatively expensive/difficult to automate. The slightly higher paid manager though? Ripe for automation.
Interesting story. I'll be sure to read it.
that's a weird thing to say, because burger flippers ARE automated -- 99% of the work of making a McDonald's burger is already automated, only the remaining hard-to-automate 1% is left for the humans.
Cashiers don't simple run the register, they do other stuff. Janitors fix stuff and carry heavy boxes, etc.
Managers and supervisors? Overpaid if they're doing the above or doing something can be automated.
Yep. There's a name for that observation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moravec%27s_paradox
edit: was too fast, sorry. Traffic lights are called robots in SA.
That is very hard to replace.
Resource allocation and unequivocal decisions are for the machines to help us with.
If, as a manager, you do more of the latter: be afraid
As a gardener, I have never feared a robot that could pull weeds. As a home-maker I have never feared a robot that could wash dishes. As an inventor, I have never feared a robot that could draft diagrams. And yet those people who are at the mercy of the market fear, and this is why, I believe that capitalism is headed for either disaster or elimination. Capitalism has created a problem which does not exist.
Post-scarcity is only a problem in capitalism.
(1) Just so long as the answer isn't "make them die because we don't need them anymore".
The monastic system was the main scientific institution for over a milenia, both in Europe and China. Only an ignorant person argue that this system developed no new technologies.
You say "only capitalism", but what are you comparing capitalism to? In the past 200 years, capitalism has been the only economic institution in the world, how do you know that other institutions would have been incapable of technological advancement?
If your point is to compare capitalism to state socialism, then you would be far off the mark. The USSR was extremely technologically advanced. The hunger was due to other problems, mostly having to do with Stalin intentionally creating famines in order to weaken insurgency.
"Is has been proposed that the Soviet leadership used the man-made famine to attack Ukrainian nationalism, and thus the man-made famine may fall under the legal definition of genocide. " https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor#Causes
I am not promoting state socialism though. I would like a future in which each person/family unit/group of friends owned a small amount of land, and robots that would help them. Quite the opposite of state socialism. In state socialism, wealth is concentrated in the hands of the government. State socialism is basically monopolistic capitalism, and I believe that the two systems share many problems.
I want the distribution of wealth, not its concentration.
Its such a good system it needs to be implemented and maintained by force.
As a side note: post-scarcity is really only possible in virtual worlds like MineCraft. There's a limited amount of land, people's time is limited, people's attention is limited, and what other people will participate in is constrained by their desires and their ambitions. Unless somehow compelled, there's nobody who will set me up with a nice automated farm where I can live out my days playing mandolin and reading mathematics as I would like when they could set themselves up and not have to hear my racket across the fence. Though it's counter to our desires, we are forced to compete for resources ... even if most of us aren't struggling for survival.
This is not true.