The human workers who feel like machines

"The last thing you want it to do is talk. Because if you talk, people think they can talk back."

The human workers who feel like machines
A Bossa Nova Robotics scanning device rolls through a Walmart Supercenter in 2018. (Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images)

Full story: As Walmart turns to robots, it’s the human workers who feel like machines


To Walmart executives, the Auto-C self-driving floor scrubber is the future of retail automation — a multimillion-dollar bet that advanced robots will optimize operations, cut costs and revolutionize the American superstore.

But to the workers of Walmart Supercenter No. 937 in Marietta, Ga., the machine has a different label: “Freddy,” named for a janitor the store let go shortly before the Auto-C rolled to life.

Freddy’s career at the store has gotten off to a rocky start. Workers there said it has suffered nervous breakdowns, needed regular retraining sessions and taken weird detours from its programmed rounds.

Shoppers are not quite sure how to interact with Freddy, either. Evan Tanner, who works there, recalled the night he says a man fell asleep on top of the machine as it whirred obediently down a toy aisle.

Walmart executives said they are skeptical that happened, because the Auto-C is designed to stop if someone interferes with its work. But Tanner insists Freddy dutifully stuck to the job at hand. “Someone had to pull [the sleeping man] off,” he said. Freddy “was going to swing toward groceries, just cleaning away.”

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