Dumb and Dangerous
On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Walmart planned to add thousands more autonomous robots to its workforce.
"With automation we are able to take away some of the tasks that associates don’t enjoy doing," Mark Propes, Walmart U.S.'s senior director of central operations, told the WSJ. "At the same time we continue to open up new jobs in other things in the store."
But one employee is complaining that all the Walmart robots are doing is giving him a new, even more tedious task — babysitting a robot, essentially — while also potentially putting customers in harm's way.
A person who identified themselves as a Walmart worker named Mark from Niagara Falls, N.Y. recently called in to the NPR program "On Point." He told the hosts that the autonomous robot scrubbers have only added to his workload.
"You hook it up to your cellphone, and it sends you text messages when it needs help," Mark said. "The other night it needed help at 11:07, 11:10, 11:20, 11:23, 11:25... The time I take babysitting it, I could scrub rings around it with a Tenant T7 auto-scrubber."
When the Walmart robots do work autonomously, they can only handle "the easy stuff," according to Mark, who explained that associates will instruct the machines to "scrub the same alley...over and over again all night" just to keep them occupied.
Hijacking In Progress
Mark also noted that the scrubbers have a design flaw that he believes makes the machines "dangerous."
He told "On Point" that he's required to enter a PIN to set a robot off to autonomously clean a route, but he doesn't have to enter one to operate the machine manually. When the robot finishes scrubbing one route, it just waits for an employee to assign it another.
"It's sitting there unattended, fully energized, where anybody can get up on it, and if they hit the accelerator, it will move," he said.
Given Mark's experience with the Walmart robots, his answer when asked whether he's worried about losing his job to one isn't exactly surprising.
"I'm old enough to retire, and I'm really not, one way or the other," he said. "But I think the bozos who make and sell this will be looking for something else to do before auto-scrubber operators will."
Still, Walmart's robots are barely out of the testing phase and will likely improve as the company is able to collect more data on them. Perhaps then they'll free associates from tedious tasks — or, despite Mark's skepticism, their jobs altogether.
READ MORE: 'I Could Scrub Rings Around It': Walmart Employee Slams Grocery Store Robots [On Point]
More on Walmart's robots: Walmart Is Rolling out Floor-Cleaning Robots in 1,500 Stores