MILPITAS (KPIX 5) – Artificial intelligence will soon be put to work at Walmart stores around the country. And it could be a game-changer for retail.
The company is launching a small army of autonomous scanning robots. The robots are 6 feet tall, equipped with an array of lights, cameras, and radar sensors.
It then goes up and down each aisle on its own, at 2 to 3 mph, scanning the shelves for empty spots and also checking the price tags.
Because the robot uses LIDAR and other video cameras, what the robot actually sees is very similar to what a self-driving car sees.
The three dimensional world it sees is detailed enough for the algorithm to figure out what's missing and needs restocking.
And when an employee standing on a ladder gets in view of the camera, it'll scan that too.
Martin Hitch is the chief business officer at Bossanova, the San Francisco company that made the robot.
He sais the robot is supposed to drive around obstacles and look for alternative routes.
"We boxed it in with four TV cameras earlier, and it made a decision on the fly as to how to figure out a way around so that it could carry on with its job," Hitch said. "That's the most rewarding thing. When it successfully navigates a really complex and dynamic space and just gets on with the job. It's unobtrusive, it just carries on."
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The robot can scan an aisle in about 90 seconds, a fraction of the time it would take a human to do.
It doesn't get bored, distracted and presumably, doesn't make mistakes. The goal: fewer empty shelves, and better selection.
Walmart is testing the robot in 50 stores across four states.
Shopper Deborah Espinoza was at the Walmart store in Milpitas and spoke with an employee about the robot.
"Wow, so it's like taking somebody's job?" Espinoza asked.
A Walmart employee said, "It's not taking someone's job. It's designed to improve the job."
"Oh really?" Espinoza responded.
Espinoza was skeptical. She works at San Jose International Airport and says when automated checkout was introduced there, cashiers were laid off.
Walmart says they are freeing up their associates to provide better customer service. We asked Espinoza if she buys that.
"Uh, no. No," Espinoza said.
Walmart says it is still too early to say how the robots will impact their workforce.
Tiffany Wilson with Walmart said, "So, it may change the types of jobs, because technology changes the types of jobs that we have. But nothing will replace customer service and human interaction and being with other people, and being serviced, by a human."
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