Real world retail giant, Wal-Mart, announced today that it will deploy shelf-scanning robots in more than 50 of its stores to help make inventory management more efficient.
The robots are two feet tall with a telescoping tower outfitted with cameras and lights. As the robot passes down an aisle, it scans the shelves to see where items are low or gone, as well as if items have the correct pricing information or are mislabeled. This information is beamed back to employees who can re-stock.
Wal-Mart tells Reuters that the robots are “50 percent more productive” than humans and can scan shelves three times faster than a person. With stats like that, it’s not hard to imagine that humans are on the way out at Wal-Mart.
The company says it wants to use robots for tasks that are “repeatable, predictable, and manual,” and insists that robots won’t replace human workers or affect headcount.
Sure, sure. For now.
Wal-Mart and Amazon are locked in a head-to-head battle over efficiency throughout their chain, and robots will play an increasingly large part in making sure consumers get what they want when they want it. Heck, Amazon even bought a robot company to help with this. Robots are just better for repetitive tasks like inventory management. They can be faster, more precise and not get injured. And they are only getting better.
In that context, the final shot of the promotional video Wal-Mart released about the shelf-scanner seems all the more creepy as human workers smile as they gather around their new robot co-worker.
The robots are coming, and the key will be creating new opportunities for humans that robots can’t replicate, or taxing companies that use robots to finance other jobs.