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Walmart Employees Bristling At Fleet Of Robot Co-Workers 

Courtesy of ZeroHedge. View original post here.

Walmart's new fleet of robots is rubbing employees the wrong way, according to the Washington Post

A Bossa Nova Robotics scanning device moves through a Walmart Supercenter in Rogers, Ark., in May 2018. (Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images)


 

In particular, the company's new Auto-C self-driving floor scrubber is proving more of a headache than a helper, according to workers of Walmart Supercenter No. 937 in Marietta, GA, who have named it "Freddy" after the janitor it replaced. 

Freddy’s career at the store has gotten off to a rocky start. Workers there said it has suffered nervous breakdowns, needed regular retraining sessions and taken weird detours from its programmed rounds.

Shoppers are not quite sure how to interact with Freddy, either. Evan Tanner, who works there, recalled the night he says a man fell asleep on top of the machine as it whirred obediently down a toy aisle. -Washington Post

While Walmart executives are skeptical that someone passed out on an operating Auto-C, Tanner insists that it happened. "Someone had to pull [the sleeping man] off," he said, adding that Freddy "was going to swing toward groceries, just cleaning away."

The company has also been using demeaning analogies to foist the robot co-workers on human employees, such as comparing the machines to Star Wars droid R2-D2 and the Transformer Optimus Prime. "Every hero needs a sidekick, and some of the best have been automated," said the company in a May announcement titled #SquadGoals

When does the "sidekick" become one's boss? Not anytime soon if the reports are accurate: 

Many Walmart workers said they had long feared robots would one day take their jobs. But they had not expected this strange transition era in which they are working alongside machines that can be as brittle, clumsy and easily baffled by the messy realities of big-box retail as a human worker can be. -WaPo

Walmart is rolling out an army of robots into more than 1,500 of its jumbo stores, performing tasks such as automated shelf-scanning, unloading boxes, AI camera systems and other jobs once left to human employees. Executives have promised that the 24-7 automation will result in happier employees who endure less drudgery and "more satisfying jobs." (with far fewer human co-workers to get in the way, we presume). 

The scale of the effort is impressive. The Fast Unloader machines automatically scan and sort freight as it is tossed off shipping trucks. Auto-S camera robots roll past shelves to scan which products are mislabeled or out of stock. Giant orange obelisks, called automated pickup towers, spit out goods for online shoppers like 16-foot-tall vending machines. Scurrying little Alphabots bring items to workers for packing. Auto-C robot Zambonis come out at night to buff the floors. -Washington Post

Now they find themselves in the uneasy position of not only training their possible replacements but also tending to them every time something goes wrong.

The self-driving floor scrubbers, for instance, must be manually driven until they learn the store’s layout — and when the aisles are shifted around, as is common during seasonal displays and remodels, the machines must be retrained.

Technical glitches, surprise breakdowns and human resentment are commonplace. Some workers said they have cursed the robots out using their employee-given nicknames, such as “Emma,” “Bender” and “Fran.” -Washington Post

Customers have been perplexed at the robots as well - with some shoppers reporting getting freaked out by the company's new 6-foot-tall Auto-S scanner which "quietly creeps down the aisles, searching for out-of-place items by sweeping shelves with a beam of light." Other shoppers have taken to kicking the robots. 

Other customers find their time with the robots to be unsatisfying, including older shoppers for whom a trip to the store is as much about human interaction as anything else. “A lot of them will say, ‘I didn’t come here to talk to a machine,’ ” said a worker at a Walmart in Dunedin, Fla., who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want it to affect his job. “ ‘I came here to shop and have someone help me with my groceries.’ ” -Washington Post

The report does note, however, that the robots don't complain, ask for bathroom breaks or require vacations. They also don't require employment taxes or health insurance. According to president and CEO Doug McMillon in a conference call last August, the machines are an important part of how the company can reduce waste and "operate with discipline." 

"We’re testing or scaling new automation efforts in several areas," he said, adding "Our mind-set and specific plans and actions around cost management are vital."

Maybe once they work out all the bugs, but for now they aren't winning over hearts and minds. 

Employees at a half-dozen newly automated Walmarts said the machines at times are helpful, even charming. Some talked about the robots’ personalities and said they had adorned them with employee name tags. But others also felt this new age of robotics had accelerated the pace of work and forced them to constantly respond to the machines’ nagging alerts. Some said it made them doubt the company valued their work.

This awkward interplay of man vs. machine could become one of the defining tensions of the modern workplace as more stores, hotels, restaurants and other businesses roll in robots that could boost company reliability and trim labor costs. -Washington Post

Implementing the technology is no minor undertaking. One Walmart Neighborhood Market in Levittown, NY boasts 100 servers, 10 cooling towers, 500 graphics cards and 150,000 feet of cable in order to manage an AI-driven ecosystem of real-time robots. 

If a problem is detected the AI sends an alert to human employees' handheld devices, where they can attend to the issue. This has introduced a "layer of discomfort to a job some workers said already feels demeaning." 


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