Humans win this round

Walmart has ended its experiment with a shelf-scanning robot it had tried out in around 500 stores. The Bossa Nova Robotics machine crawled down the aisles and logged price tag details, stocking and so on. From the Wall Street Journal:

Walmart ended the partnership because it found different, sometimes simpler solutions that proved just as useful, said people familiar with the situation. As more shoppers flock to online delivery and pickup because of Covid-19 concerns, Walmart has more workers walking the aisles frequently to collect online orders, gleaning new data on inventory problems, said some of these people. The retailer is pursuing ways to use those workers to monitor product amounts and locations, as well as other automation technology, according to the people familiar with the situation.

It may be tempting to paint this as a setback for robotics in the grocery space — but I’d caution against that. The Bossa Nova machine — which I saw for myself at a Walmart in Bentonville, Arkanas — was an inelegant solution. It was slow, stopped dead at the mere sign of interruption, and was, to put it simply, just in the way — whether for customers walking around, or human workers trying to get at the shelves.

Robotics in groceries means rethinking the store itself, not designing robots to replicate human behaviour. Here’s a much more likely scenario from Massachusetts-based Alphabot, which is also working with Walmart: