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Why Walmart is adding thousands of robots to U.S. stores

"Think R2D2," Walmart wrote in a press release. Others are thinking "layoffs."

Photo credit: Rick T. Wilking / GETTY
  • Walmart plans to soon add more than 3,900 robots to stores across the U.S.
  • The robots will perform tasks such as scanning products, sorting shipments, cleaning floors, and readying online purchases for pickup.
  • Walmart says the robots will free up time for employees to help customers, while critics say its a long-term move toward replacing human workers.

Walmart is adding thousands of new robots to stores across the U.S., a move that comes as retailers struggle to attract and retain workers amid record-low unemployment rates.

The mammoth retailer plans to bring more than 3,900 robots to U.S. stores to perform a variety of "repeatable, predictable" tasks.

"Our associates immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual," said John Crecelius, senior vice president of Central Operations for Walmart U.S., in a press release. "It allows them time to focus more on selling merchandise and serving customers, which they tell us have always been the most exciting parts of working in retail."

The new robots will include about 300 "Auto-S" shelf scanners, 1,500 "Auto-C" floor cleaners, 900 "Pickup" towers, and 1,200 "FAST Unloaders," used to help employees unload and sort products from trucks.

Walmart is framing these robots as fun, anthropomorphized sidekicks.

"Think R2D2, Optimus Prime and Robot from Lost in Space," the company wrote in a press release. "Just like Will Robinson and Luke Skywalker, having the right kind of support helps our associates succeed at their jobs."

But elsewhere, company executives have suggested the automation of certain tasks could lead to the elimination of low-rung jobs.

"As we evolve, there are certain activities, certain jobs that'll go away," Walmart US CFO Michael Dastugue said at an analyst conference in March.

In December, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union's Making Change at Walmart project released a statement alleging Walmart actively intends to cut jobs — about one per store, it estimates — with the robots.

"Make no mistake, Walmart's move to autonomous floor cleaners is not about better serving customers and workers," the statement read. "This latest job-killing venture has the potential to destroy over 5,000 maintenance jobs in the U.S. if it is implemented in every Walmart store."

Still, Walmart it's maybe no wonder Walmart is looking toward automation, considering its massive stores are expensive to operate, more people are shopping online, and the retail sector has been losing workers since 2017.

"There is a labor shortage in retail," Kirthi Kalyanam, director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University, told CNN. "It will not be easy for Walmart to add labor to perform these functions. So a high level of automation is required."

Overall, the unemployment is strikingly low — just 3.8 percent for most of March. In the short term, Walmart U.S. CFO Michael Dastugue suggested adding the robots means workers will face more role flexibility at work.

"We may need them to do them one activity in the morning and a different activity in the afternoon," he said, adding it'll force employees to "be able to handle change."

Still, it'd be a far different story if robots began to replace the bulk of U.S. cashiers, of which there are more than 3 million. Erikka Knuti, a communications director for United Food and Commercial Workers International Union communications, said it's unclear what these workers would do if not cashiering.

"Those are good jobs that can provide a person with a living and a way to provide a better living for their family," she told Forbes. "They're not going to all go to Silicon Valley and start coding, and not everybody can do warehouse work."

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Lee Jae-Sung of Korea Republic lies on the pitch holding his knee during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group F match between Korea Republic and Germany at Kazan Arena on June 27, 2018 in Kazan, Russia.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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