+“Walmart will soon use hundreds of A.I. robot janitors to scrub the floors of US stores” | CNBC | Tom Huddleston Jr. | 12/05/2018
“The robot scrubbers will free up existing Walmart employees to have more time to perform other tasks, according to John Crecelius, Walmart’s vice president of central operations. “BrainOS is a powerful tool in helping our associates complete repetitive tasks so they can focus on other tasks within role and spend more time serving customers,” Crecelius said in a statement.
A computational neuroscientist, Izhikevich co-founded Brain Corp. in 2009 and the company has raised roughly $125 million in funding from investors who include Softbank and Qualcomm. While Walmart and Brain Corp. did not disclose any plans for additional partnerships in the future, Izhikevich did say in the press release that his company “look[s] forward to continuing to work alongside Walmart to help build intelligent, connected stores.”
Walmart has already deployed robots to take over other work usually performed by human employees, including using shelf-scanning robots in dozens of US stores to search for inventory and prices while also locating misplaced items.
Walmart is looking to rely more and more on automation in the future — an evolution that could free up current employees to perform more efficient, higher value tasks, but which some critics worry could also result in lower wages and fewer jobs at a company that is currently America’s largest private employer with over 1.5 million paid workers.”
“Free” is the operative word here. “Free” and “free up” are used in two senses: 1) “to liberate,” and 2) “to release; to let go.” These shaded meanings obscure Walmart’s ultimate intent.
“Liberate” will ultimately mean “released” for low-skilled Walmart workers whose tasks are transferred to robots. Robots performing repetitive tasks will indeed free humans up to do other things for employers who’ve not yet automated. Likewise, “spending more time serving customers” is also a red-herring given the pace at which customer service functions are increasingly performed by software. Been to a McDonald’s lately?
Walmart and other corporations capable of automating at scale will put even more pressure on low-skilled wage growth. Skyrocketing education costs will make acquiring new skills difficult without massive personal debt. The Slow Robot Apocalypse will be the debt burden borne by workers struggling to stay a step ahead of machines that will be continuously upgraded by employers.
Walmart wants us to believe there will still be jobs for its low-skilled workers once their functions are replaced by autonomous floor scrubbers, robots that scan shelves for out-of-stock items, and smart conveyor belts. But that’s not what robots that replace low-skilled human labor actually do. Low-skilled labor is also low-profit labor. What robots really do for the balance sheet is to eliminate the direct and indirect costs of low-profit human labor, which can then be returned to a corporation’s shareholders.
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