Breaking Down the Robot Takeover
I’ve been hearing about the workforce a lot lately. Specifically, discussions seem to focus on one of two key concerns that are, depending on how you look at them, diametrically opposed.
One concern is this: robots — and technology generally speaking — are taking jobs away from people. The other concern? That there are not enough people, particularly in areas that require tech skills, to fill available jobs.
What gives? Well, both statements are true. Technology, particularly automation, is eliminating jobs that people used to do. And, at the same time, technology is requiring new skills that are not widely possessed by the general workforce. To fix that, we need more education and training, at both the corporate and university levels.
But, for now, technology is also creating many jobs that are very similar to traditional jobs, while eliminating some of the less fulfilling tasks that many people have performed out of necessity but maybe not desire. In a session at last month’s NRF Big Show, executive vice president and CTO of Walmart, Jeremy King, said that the giant retailer is automating customer service as well as internal communications using chatbots. Walmart employs 2 million people, so it can make significant improvement by automating things such as the company’s benefits hotline, which saves humans from answering the same questions over and over again.
King says that people question the harmful effects of that transformation. “’Isn’t that losing humans?’ But we say you should want to automate yourself out of the system, so you can do other things,” he says. What other things? Walmart Labs alone employs 7500 people. That’s 7500 opportunities to let your creative flag fly, exploring better ways to do things that need doing, or coming up with new things to do. Likewise, available technology systems — such as the vast array covered in this month’s Tech Trends Report — that streamline data and provide one version of it across the supply chain allow designers to focus on design and planners to focus on merchandising, for example, rather than spending countless hours searching through emails for information.
Consider also that the internet and smartphones have spawned a virtually endless matrix of shopping channels, which in turn have generated the need for people to manage them. E-commerce has supercharged the need for so many logistics and delivery personnel that supply cannot keep up with demand. “As we create the technology, you see new jobs coming out of it,” says King, adding that Walmart has added about 30,000 new jobs just to deal with buy online pick up in store (BOPIS) offerings that have opened up jobs in areas of in-store picking, delivery and customer pickup.
“Robots are often replacing jobs that humans weren’t doing very well,” he says. Robots have, for example, been employed to slide into the back of its trucks to sort items and help unload palettes, while shelf-scanning robots report back about sold-out items. Syncing up those two technologies allows robots to move most-needed items quickly into play for delivery to those empty shelves. That frees associates for other tasks that people do far better than robots, such as interacting with customers.
Back to that training component mentioned above. Serious efforts need to be made at multiple levels and in an ongoing fashion — and technology can help with that, too. Walmart has been working with a Silicon Valley startup on virtual reality (VR) training, and has built 200 training academies around the United States for that purpose. Via VR training goggles, associates can learn just about everything related to store operations, from using a robot to unload a truck to restocking shelves, says King.
These are just a few of many examples of how technology is changing the retail landscape — and everything else. The point is that with thoughtful strategy robots can enhance our lives by freeing up time for people to engage in more creative vs. more robotic tasks. It’s even in the name. If we leave robotic tasks to the robots, seeking to blend the best of what both humans and technology have to offer, we’ll reap the benefits of unleashing the creative forces of the human mind.