Through a pane of clear plastic, speaking through a mask, a checkout clerk at a grocery chain told my wife she was feeling sick yesterday. My wife asked (and I'm imagining her taking a big step back as she did) if she'd told her manager. The clerk replied she had but she was out of sick days and couldn't afford to lose the pay. That story is true, and it's horrifying -- both for the risk of outbreak it suggests and for the complicated labor realities it betrays. It's also an anecdotal illustration of one more reason automation is coming to grocery stores, and fast.
Artificial Intelligence or AI is expected to be in major demand by retail consumers due to its ability to make interactions in retail as flawless and seamless as possible. Many of us do realize the potential of AI and all that it is capable of, along with the support of Machine Learning or ML, but don't realize that the implementation of AI in certain segments has already begun.
You may have seen stores deploy shelf-scanning robots before, but they're about to get one of their largest real-world tests to date. Walmart is expanding a shelf-scanning robot trial run to 50 additional stores, including some in its home state of Arkansas. There will be technicians on-site just in case, but the bots are fully autonomous. Thanks in part to 3D imaging, they can dodge around obstacles and make notes to return later if their path is completely blocked. Walmart stresses that the robots are there to supplement humans, not replace them -- to eliminate drudgery and the expenses that go with it.
Walmart is laying off the robots it had deployed in about 500 stores to keep tabs on what's on and not on the shelves. The retailer said it has ended its relationship with startup Bossa Nova Robotics, which builds roving robots equipped with cameras for identifying out-of-stock and misplaced products. Walmart said in a statement it has "worked with Bossa Nova for five years and together we learned a lot about how technology can assist associates, make jobs easier and provide a better customer experience." It said it is still testing other new technologies for tracking inventory and moving goods. "This was one idea we tried in roughly 500 stores just as we are trying other ideas in additional stores," Walmart said in a statement. The Wall Street Journal was first to report the ending partnership Monday, citing unnamed people familiar with the situation who said the retailer found human workers could get similar results.
Bossa Nova's shelf-scanning robot contains the same kind of sensors as a self-driving car. It's an unsettling time to be a major bricks-and-mortar retailer in the US. Retail corporate defaults hit an all-time high in the first quarter of this year as shoppers continue to abandon their local malls and embrace e-commerce. There's no denying that it's simpler to search for a product on Amazon than it is to march up and down aisles at the grocery store. But California-based robotics firm Bossa Nova is hoping to breathe new life into the bricks-and-mortar experience with the help of its shelf-scanning robot.