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Robots get fired too!

Robot at work for inventory in a Walmart store. Image credit: Walmart

It turns out that robots can be fired too, for low performance!

Walmart started a project one year ago employing robots to track inventory in some 500 of their stores. The robots were designed and produced by Bossa Nova (watch the clip), a Pittsburg based start up. Their robots can wander the store looking at the products on the shelves for a real time inventory. They can detect a low quantity and trigger replenishment, and they can also detect misplaced product, a common issue in stores, with customers picking up a product, changing their mind and dropping it on the nearest shelf.

The inventory tracking is based on image recognition and artificial intelligence. The robots are autonomous and can wander the store floor creating their own strategy to minimise the path and maximise the effectiveness of inspection. They also learn where to look for probable low stock depending on the day and time of the day and keep learning and adjusting their daily chore.

The robot were designed to operate along with people, customers as well as Walmart associates.

In early January 2020 Walmart disclosed the intention to double the number stores using inventory tracking robots, resulting in over 1,000 stores having them. This was part of a strategy of automation that Walmart has consistently pursued over the last five years, resulting in a close partnership with Bossa Nova (the first in-store robot was “hired” in 2016).

Now, just 9 months after that announcement, Walmart changed its mind and decided to fire the robots for “underperforming”.

The situation might be more complex. In these 9 months Walmart had to face the Covid-19 crises and one way to use their “human” workers was to have them taking over tasks carried out by robots. This was probably a factor in their decision.

However, in their statement they also indicated that robots have proved awkward in their relation with customers, with some customers being if not scared at least uneasy in walking along with a robot during their shopping. Also they cited an underperformance of robots with respect to people in identifying products and dealing with them (as an example, a Walmart associate spotting an out of place product will take care of moving it to the right place whilst a robot can only signal the problem to have an associate walking up to the place to correct the situation). Notice that in previous announcement, like the one in 2018, Walmart declared that the robots were “loved” by their staff and did not affect customers.

As result of this decision it is expected that Bossa Nova will need to cut their workforce, beyond the cuts that were made in June 2020 as result of lower demand due to the epidemic.

Sad to notice that when robots are successful you see cuts in the workforce, and this happens as well when they are not!

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.