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."

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

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Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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