Walmart now has an automated floor cleaner with cameras on it that scans shelves as it sweeps, helping to stay on top of what needs to be restocked. Last week’s Atlantic League Baseball All Star Game was called by an automated umpire — a digital reading analyzing the strike zone. Technology is ever expanding into our favorite pastimes, our routine shopping and our social lives and business leaders in the industry have gathered in Aspen this week to talk it all out, at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference.
Doug McMillon, president and CEO of Walmart, was interviewed by Adam Lashinsky, Fortune executive editor and editorial director of Brainstorm Tech, who pointed out that Walmart was left in the dust during the initial internet shopping age. McMillon agreed, but said that as customers habits evolve, having their nearly 5,000 brick-and-mortar stores along with a robust online presence has turned out to be beneficial.
“What we really learned in recent times is that these things come together in a really interesting way that is helpful and in some ways to our advantage in this omni-channel world,” McMillon said.
Unlike retail giants such as Amazon, Walmart provides fresh, perishable food items which are not able to be stored in massive distribution centers the way dry goods can; in many cities, Walmart will deliver groceries and other items it stocks. The company is further expanding that service in select markets, where someone will not only deliver the box of food to your front door, but even go inside and put it in the refrigerator.
“The internet of things is starting to happen at store level,” said McMillion “What’s happening now is that we are starting to put pieces in place and trying to design an overall system.”
McMillon also addressed Walmart’s investment in old-school technology — humans. The company offers college tuition to any of its employees and has recently included high school employees in the academic program that will pay people to take college classes in certain fields.
“We see that educational benefit as being another part of that continuum, with the goal being that we drive up retention, we prepare people for the future of work, we want them to have great jobs in the future, we want them to have careers,” McMillon said.
Seventy-five percent of Walmart store managers began within the company as hourly workers. In the last five years the minimum wage of Walmart employees has gone up 50 percent and they have added additional family benefits such as 16 weeks paid leave for new mothers.
Lashinsky said the investment in humans will be a major theme of the three-day conference being held at the St. Regis.
The technology companyOracle has a division focused solely on the intersection of sports and tech. It has created a sailing race — Sail GP — that tracks real-time data from all of the boats participating, so that teams can use the choices made by their opponents to create their own strategy and spectators can use an app to see real-time standings during the event. But in the end, they still found it important to leave decision making up to the humans, such as Olympian Chris Draper who spoke at a session on sports and technology.
“It would be very easy to have a flight control system on these boats,” said Draper. “But instead we tried to maintain that human aspect which is hugely important.”
Oracle is also working to bring real time data to Major League Baseball stadiums. The hope is for hot dog stands, bathrooms and beer gardens to be just as wired as the sailing race course, so someone in the stands can find out where the closest cotton candy is, shortest lines are, or order and pay for food and drink delivery without leaving their seat.
Edwin Upson, group vice president for enterprise architects for Oracle, also said he thinks there are human tasks that can be automated to give spectators a more thrilling experience, namely digital umpires.
“I’m pretty confident that at some point in the future it will be entirely objective, the replay will be done, and literally in one to two seconds it will just be a notification to the umpire,” said Upson. “That benefits everyone, there is no bias by any official and it doesn't slow the pace of the game down.”
For Upson, the humans should be used to play the game, but robots should be used to process the data. This spring Major League Baseball announced it is experimenting with the automated strike zone technology through a three-year contract with the independent Atlantic League, which will be using a radar system to assist home plate umpires with their calls. The system debuted in the league’s all star game last week.
“The technology is very close to being applicable to taking the human element out of the decision-making process,” he said, “and it is going to improve the sport, I fundamentally believe it will.”