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I recently wrote an article about Walmart’s new Intelligent Retail Lab (IRL) from a supply chain perspective. Walmart’s IRL, is a new AI powered store that uses technology and data to monitor every day tasks from re-stocking shelves, notifying employees when a new cash register needs to be opened; and insuring that there are always enough carts available for customers.

From a supply chain point of view; IRL enables Walmart to move goods and services efficiently with limited human error.  While it’s a far cry from AI completely taking over the world, it did get me thinking about what this new technology-driven retail store means for the future of data and humans alike.

I spoke to Sadie St. Lawrence; CEO and founder of Women in Data to get her perspective on what a store like Intelligent Retail Lab means for the future of businesses.  “Walmart's approach to a ‘smart’ store is practical and efficient,” St. Lawrence declared when I approached her on the topic.  Practicality and efficiency are two of the of goals of Walmart’s IRL’s CEO, Mike Hanrahan. “When you combine all the information we’re gathering in IRL with Walmart’s 50-plus years of expertise in running stores, you can create really powerful experiences that improve the lives of both our customers and associates,” he noted.

The Intelligent Retail Lab isn’t the first store to utilize data to make a better product or use the statistics collected to better meet the demands of a business. According to St. Lawrence it does have the ability to “…pave a way for more companies to see how they can integrate AI into their existing business without doing an overhaul of their whole product.”

While data doesn’t solve all of a company’s problems, it can help guide an organization to make better decisions when it comes to their business strategy. St. Lawrence pointed out that data has the ability to help any company succeed, but it’s usually the e-commerce organizations that benefited the most. Walmart’s IRL proved that didn’t have to be the case. “Essentially, they have brought the power of analytics that was only accessible to an e-commerce platform to a brick and mortar store,” St. Lawrence explained.

Lastly, I asked St. Lawrence what an AI-powered store would mean for the future of employees. Women in Data is a nonprofit organization that helps women get the skills they need to pursue jobs in data; so this particular question hit close to home. While she agreed that AI-powered stores like Walmart’s IRL would eliminate the need for certain jobs, it would also create the need for others. “This issue is not so much a lack of jobs, but rather a mismatch of skills,” she revealed. “Therefore, what we are dealing with is a reskilling issue.” This is a problem that St. Lawrence sees everyday as CEO of Women in Data; a problem that the nonprofit is hoping to mend in the future.

While it may not be the future that sci-fi movies have prophesized for decades, when used wisely, data and artificial intelligence have the capability to change how organizations run their business. While it might be true that particular jobs are at stake, it does not mean we will see a lack of jobs altogether. As St. Lawrence cited, jobs will require a different set of skills ones that will adopt to a data-driven society.

Last modified on Monday, 20 May 2019
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Danielle Loughnane

Danielle Loughnane earned her B.F.A. in Creative Writing from Emerson College and has currently been working in the data science field since 2015. She is the author of a comic book entitled, “The Superhighs” and wrote a blog from 2011-2015 about working in the restaurant industry called, "Sir I Think You've Had Too Much.” In her spare time she likes reading graphic novels and snuggling with her dogs.

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