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'I Could Scrub Rings Around It': Walmart Employee Slams Grocery Store Robots

A Walmart store in North Kingstown, R.I. (Steven Senne/AP)
A Walmart store in North Kingstown, R.I. (Steven Senne/AP)

They’re here.

Robots are roaming the aisles of local grocery and retail stores. Walmart announced this week that thousands of robots will be in stores nationwide.

Scanning shelves, scrubbing floors, unloading trucks. The company says robots will pick up some of the repetitive tasks employees don’t enjoy, while also allowing Walmart to develop jobs for workers that are better suited to the 21st century.

Managing that transition well is absolutely critical, because workers right now also look at the robots not as opportunities, but replacements.

Well, maybe not all workers.

On Point caller Mark, from Niagara Falls, New York, works in a Walmart. And he says, at least right now, these robot cleaners, scanners and stockers aren't all they're cracked up to be.

"I have had experience with the Brain — the Intelligent Cleaning Equipment [ICE]. You hook it up to your cellphone and it sends you text messages when it needs help. The other night it needed help at 11:07, 11:10, 11:20, 11:23, 11:25," he said.

That's a lot of help.

Mark said the machine is very finicky and slow. This has so far created an inefficiency in the operation of the machines in his Walmart, he says.

"The time I take babysitting it, I could scrub rings around it with a Tenant T7 auto-scrubber," he said. "But also, it's dangerous, because you have to enter a PIN number to program the thing and to set it on its course. But, for some reason, you don't have to enter a PIN number to operate it manually. You put a poster on the wall that it scans, and it starts out there and does its route. And then it comes back and parks itself at that route, and waits for an associate to come and assign it another route.

"It's sitting there unattended, fully energized, where anybody can get up on it, and if they hit the accelerator, it will move."

"I think the bozos who make and sell this will be looking for something else to do before auto-scrubber operators will."

On Point caller Mark on the cleaning robots

Mark said the machines are still working out other kinks, too. They will shut down if aisles are blocked and send pictures to associates as proof, but sometimes it's just the machines "can't make a corner."

When they do function effectively, Mark said it's just the "low-hanging fruit."

"It will do the easy stuff," he said. "And because we are being pressured to put hours on the machine ... they just put hours on the machine even if it's not doing anything useful. Scrub the same alley that it don't bother you, over and over again all night."

So is Mark worried about losing his job?

"I'm old enough to retire, and I'm really not, one way or the other," he said with a laugh. "But I think the bozos who make and sell this will be looking for something else to do before auto-scrubber operators will."

Of course, it might not always be this way, as Andrew McAfee, co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, told On Point. Three to five years down the line, it could be a different story.

"We need to keep in mind that innovation is not one-stop shopping, and the fact that the floor scrubber is not working well at all right now, according to Mark, and he's babysitting it instead of doing his job — that doesn't mean that will always be the case," McAfee said. "And the progress that we're seeing with all the components of that technology — sensing, and with putting processing together, and figuring out a smart path — we're seeing really rapid progress with all those things."

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