Shoppers at Woodman’s Markets will notice new workers in the aisle soon — but they won’t be able to tell you which aisle the ketchup is in. 

The Wisconsin-based supermarket chain is deploying new multipurpose robots designed by Badger Technologies, a product division of Jabil.

These robots will monitor product availability, verify prices and deliver precise location data for more than 100,000 items at each location. Equipped with Badger Retail InSight, they are part of a complete retail automation solution that is enabling Woodman’s to “elevate store execution, lower operational costs and increase store profits,” Jabil said.

“Most Woodman’s stores are over 240,000 sq. ft., nearly six times larger than the grocery industry average,” said Tim Rowland, CEO of Badger Technologies. “Not only can our robots perform shelf scans in hours instead of days, but they collect and connect critical data with the Woodman’s mobile shopping app to take customer experiences to the next level.” 

Innovative imaging tools and neural networks enable the Badger Technologies autonomous robots to detect out-of-stock items with more than 95 percent accuracy. Incorrect and mispriced products are identified with over 90 percent accuracy. Badger Technologies autonomous robots also discern current product locations within a 4-ft. section of aisles that typically extend more than 100 ft. 

In other words, there’s no way humans can compete. 

In a press release about the robots, Jabil says the ability to automate store-wide shelf scans for out-of-stocks and price compliance will eliminate arduous manual tasks, especially given each store’s large floor space. 

And that may be true, but if those staff aren’t moved into other jobs, there would be a real impact on people’s lives. 

I’m not against automation. And I completely understand that the world will keep pushing forward regardless of the consequences. 

Woodman’s is unusual for a supermarket because it is employee-owned, so I have to assume that the staff was on board with installing these robots. And thus, I’m hopeful that they won’t be laying off any staff as a result of deploying them. 

But Woodman’s isn’t the only place automating on a massive scale. Confectionery factories, warehouses and shipping centers are all getting help from robots these days. And with that help comes less need for human employees. 

I’m all for creating less menial work for humans, but that doesn’t mean everyone should just hire less staff and shrug at the consequences. We will need to respond to this, as a society. 

Andrew Yang, who recently ran for the Democratic nomination for president, made this issue the focus of his campaign.

“Some estimates place the number of American jobs subject to automation above 30 percent,” he told Forbes in 2019. “The top jobs in the US — retail, food service, administrative, transportation including truck driving, and manufacturing — are all subject to automation. We’re heading for a crisis as the AI call center software comes online and the trucks start driving themselves.”

And you have probably heard of Yang’s proposed solution — universal basic income. Or as he calls it, the Freedom Dividend. 

“We need to evolve our economy to the next stage of capitalism as quickly as possible,” he said in Forbes. “We need to implement the Freedom Dividend, a universal basic income of $1,000/mo. This would allow people to transition through this difficult time. It would allow people to move for an opportunity, or give people breathing room to start a business. It would supercharge local economies, as everyone would have more money to spend at bakeries, tutoring for their kids, car repairs, or the occasional night out. And it will allow people to leave abusive jobs or relationships.”

Now, I’m not specifically advocating for that particular solution. But Yang has put a spotlight on an issue that will impact all of us eventually. 

It’s short- sighted to think that using robots to replace staff is 100 percent a good thing simply because quarterly profits go up as a result. 

We must think long-term and build a strong foundation for the future because it’s all connected. If companies hire fewer people, that means fewer shoppers. And that means quarterly profits will go down eventually. 

It’s exciting to see all the ways automation and robotics can make life easier — we just have to make sure it doesn’t make it more difficult in the long run.