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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."

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

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Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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