July 26, 2023

Collision 2023: Discussing the future of AI and robotics in retail

Inventory management
Sasha Milovanova
Marketing Coordinator

During the recent Collision 2023 conference, the discussions revolving around AI and robotics took center stage, providing valuable insights into the future of these technologies. In one of the sessions David Pinn, the CEO of Brain Corp, delved into the profound impact of AI in the retail sector. In this article, we have curated and condensed some of the key points shared by Pinn, highlighting their significance.

What are the key problems Brain Corp is solving right now for retail?

A major problem retailers are facing is around labor shortages. We find that it’s really hard for the retailers to find workers. The way that we can really help augment these problems is through autonomous mobile robots that can clean the floors and check the shelves.

These are jobs that are in the robotics industry we call dull, dirty and dangerous, the kind of roles that are hard to fill for humans, but they’re easy for robots to automate.

How do you envision the retail industry evolving with the integration of robots?
When it comes to the future of retail, technology advancements in computer vision and autonomous navigation are unlocking new applications.

I see the future for these autonomous mobile robots getting into applications that are at the heart of retail operations. For example, one of the applications that we offer is autonomous shelf scanning robot that drive around and find out of stock items and price labels that need to be updated.

Beyond that, we can see robots continuing to help augment that labor force that’s in such short supply, helping with stocking the shelves and doing order fulfillment.

One of the huge trends, of course, during COVID and beyond is omnichannel fulfillment. It requires increased labor during a time when labor is less and less available. As a society we need this autonomy from robots to fill gaps as retailers need to fulfill orders in all of these new ways with a small and shrinking workforce.

I think demographic changes are really driving the demand for this kind of autonomy. What we see in some other economies in the world, they’re ahead of us in this demographic change of falling birthrates and population decline. Certainly that’s been an ongoing trend in Japan and in Korea.

It’s happening in Western Europe to a certain extent as well. We see here in the U.S. the labor force participation rate has declined. It was at a peak of around 66%, pre-COVID. It’s now back to around 63%. So we’ve lost about 3% of the labor force, and that trend really is not going back up.

This just illustrates the need for autonomous mobile robots and for automation in general to help us maintain our standard of living, despite the fact that the workforce is shrinking.

How are you addressing the theme of job displacement due to AI and robotics, as well as the need to up skill?

We’re doing jobs that otherwise are not getting done. For example, on the floor care side, if it takes a team of three people overnight to clean a typical grocery store, it’s usually very hard to get three people to show up for that job reliably every night. You might only get one or two people showing up.

On the shelf scanning side, we’re doing a job that really isn’t possible for a human to do practically well. The idea of going up and down every aisle of a store and checking to make sure every single price label is accurate, it’s not a job that a human can practically do as accurately as what is needed.

We want robots to be seen by store employees as an opportunity for them to up skill. It’s important to take time to offer the training to store employees so that they can elevate from being a janitor to being a robot operator, or from an inventory specialist to being a robot operator.

There are things that humans are very good at and there are things that robots are very good at. If the robot can take care of that mundane work and that frees up the employee to really do what people are good at, this helps the retailer provide a differentiated customer service. And so if you deploy robots, this is an opportunity to leverage the value of technology while allowing humans to do their job even better.

What is one of your biggest learnings?

We have realized that it’s not the technology that drives people. It’s people that drive technology.

As much as we focus on all of the magic of the algorithms for how the machine navigates in its environment, what’s equally important is working on the training of the employees, the human robot interface, how the technology connects with people, how you enroll people in that change management and get them excited about the future of how humans and robots can work together and each one can bring their expertise into the mix.

That’s our focus today.

Watch the talk here.

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