Robots and the Future of Retail and Logistics Jobs

The new inventory manager at the Carnegie Mellon University campus store is short, likes to wear hooded sweatshirts, and doesn’t talk much. And he’s a robot.

As reported in a recent MIT Technology Review article, the robot called AndyVision “scans the shelves to generate a real-time interactive map of the store, which customers can browse via an in-store screen. At the same time, the robot performs a detailed inventory check, identifying each item on the shelves, and alerting employees if stock is low or if an item has been misplaced.” Watch the video below for a demo.

Okay, AndyVision is not a real employee (yet); it is a research project focused on the future of retail, part of the Intel Science and Technology Center in Embedded Computing at Carnegie Mellon University. And it’s not a perfect solution either (it’s not apparent from the video, for example, if the robot can determine inventory quantities and locations by size or color, unless you add RFID tags to the items and equip the robot with a scanner). But the day will come, probably sooner than we think, when these types of robots will be commonplace in retail stores.

Just take a look at what’s been happening in manufacturing and distribution, which was highlighted in a very interesting New York Times article published last month titled, “Skilled Work, Without the Worker.” Here is an excerpt:

This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the [Philips Electronics] one here in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants [in China], which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers.

What does this all mean for jobs and the economy? In the intro to their book “Race Against the Machine,” Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee from MIT write the following:

When people talk about jobs in America today, they talk about cyclicality, outsourcing and off-shoring, taxes and regulation, and the wisdom and efficacy of different kinds of stimulus. We don’t doubt the importance of all these factors. The economy is a complex, multifaceted entity.

 

But there has been relatively little talk about role of acceleration of technology. It may seem paradoxical that faster progress can hurt wages and jobs for millions of people, but we argue that’s what’s been happening. As we’ll show, computers are now doing many things that used to be the domain of people only. The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications. Perhaps the most important of these is that while digital progress grows the overall economic pie, it can do so while leaving some people, or even a lot of them, worse off.

They go on to say that “our technologies are racing ahead but many of our skills and organizations are lagging behind. So it’s urgent that we understand these phenomena, discuss their implications, and come up with strategies that allow human workers to race ahead with machines instead of racing against them.”

I’m still trying to wrap my head around what this all means for retailers and logistics operators, but I agree with Brynjolfsson and McAfee: it’s time to get the conversation started. So the next time your senior leadership meets to discuss strategy, add this item to the agenda and see where the conversation takes you.

Comments

  1. The Andy Vision project is interesting. Imaging a “Roomba” like robot crusing the aisles in off hours doing inventory checks and location validation. But as you suggested, this may need an item level RFID tag in order to get good inventory levels.

    If we add RFID and a good GIS locator in-store why would we need the robot? Just read the tags.

    Regardless, the meaning of the piece with respect to future staffing levels is interesting and obvious. And you did not even add in the impact of the Amazon / KIVA factor for DCs.

    Thanks for your insigntful thinking.

    Steve Murray

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