Walmart is adding robots to its workforce, as it continues to shift into a storefront for the modern world.
The retailer has been testing the robots in a number of stores in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and California, where they're used for "repeatable, predictable and manual" tasks. The 0.61-meter (2 ft) tall robots are equipped with a tower and a series of cameras, and they move up and down aisles scanning shelves for out-of-stock items, identifying incorrect prices, and taking note of wrong or missing labels. Data is then passed on to employees, who proceed to stock items and correct mistakes.
Initial tests of the robots have been successful enough for Walmart to expand their robot fleet to another 50 stores across the country. Business Insider reports this expansion will be completed by the end of January 2018.
Speaking with Reuters, Walmart Chief Technology Officer Jeremy King said Walmart robots are 50 percent more productive than human employees, more accurate with their scanning, and three times faster. Despite their efficiency, King stated they would not replace human workers—a relief to any employees expecting the company to cut more jobs in favor of automation.
In a blog post detailing the announcement, Walmart director of communications Justin Rushing said the robots "[free] up time for our associates to focus on what they tell us are the most important and exciting parts of working at Walmart–serving customers and selling merchandise."
Improving the Shopping Experience
Walmart sees their autonomous scanners as a solution to their out-of-stock problem. Unavailable items mean the potential loss of a sale when someone can't find a specific product. Getting human employees to scan for items has also proven to be difficult, as it's a tedious task most don't want to do.
“If you are running up and down the aisle and you want to decide if we are out of Cheerios or not, a human doesn’t do that job very well, and they don’t like it,” said King.
The incorporation of robots is also part of a larger effort to make shopping easier. It follows in the wake of a partnership with Google to take on Amazon and the launch of a new delivery service that allows delivery drivers to enter someone's home. According to Reuters, the retailer has also "digitized operations like pharmacy and financial services in stores."
Walmart isn't the first retailer to utilize robots, however. Amazon has been using Kiva robots in its warehouses since 2014, and Alibaba's warehouses have seen an increased productivity since introducing their own robots.
AI and robots are expected to threaten some jobs within 5 years. However, if companies can find a way to have humans and robots work together–as Walmart has–it may be enough to prevent a workless future.