Automation and AI will soon take over Walmart's stores and warehouses, performing servicing and fulfillment duties, but that may not be bad news for its workers.

According to an announcement by the retail giant earlier this month, by the end of 2026, close to 65% of its stores will be serviced by automation, while roughly 55% of fulfillment center volume will move through automated facilities. Nonetheless, Walmart expects to maintain or increase the number of people it employs.

This may sound contradictory, as it would seem to make humans redundant. But not to Professor Yossi Sheffi, MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics Director, who thinks the relentless diffusion of new technologies – including automation and artificial intelligence (AI) – in retailing need not render human workers redundant.

"On the contrary, in keeping with historical trends, technological innovation will redefine roles and create new employment opportunities that harness uniquely human capabilities," he told International Business Times.

Like with previous technologies, Sheffi sees automation and AI bringing improvements in several areas of retailing, with robots powered by advanced machine learning algorithms unloading, sorting, and moving products in fulfillment centers as drones keep track of inventory levels.

Meanwhile, AI's use of historical and operational data can help retailers refine critical processes such as demand forecasting, inventory management, and pricing strategies.

"Innovations like these streamline order fulfillment processes and support faster deliveries and better customer service," Sheffi explained. "Additionally, automation can make retailers more responsive to market changes and improve profitability."

For instance, AI can provide customized product recommendations, which leads to higher customer satisfaction and loyalty. That means higher efficiency and lower costs.

For instance, automation of servicing and fulfillment processes could cut Walmart's costs by approximately 20%. In addition, the technology will help big retail increase the efficiency of distribution centers. Thus, it can provide a more consistent, predictable, and higher-quality delivery service to stores and customers.

While the rising efficiency could help Walmart's bottom line, bringing prosperity to its stockholders, it raises fears that it could lead to the displacement of workers and massive layoffs. But Sheffi doesn't share these fears, pointing to a lesson or two from the past.

"While it is true that AI and automation technologies have the potential to automate many manual tasks, they can create new job opportunities in areas such as programming, data analysis, and maintenance of these new systems," he explained. "Moreover, the new roles will likely require more technical skills and pay more than traditional manual jobs."

That happened with the diffusion of previous technologies in the last 150 years that fueled job fears, social unrest, and violent clashes between labor and management.

"While many jobs were eliminated during these past upheavals, technology-driven change also brought economic growth and prosperity," Sheffi continued. "More efficient businesses drove market growth and hence new employment opportunities.

"For example, ATMs were thought to eliminate teller jobs, yet ATMs allowed banks to open more branches, and the number of tellers employed more than doubled. The arrival of AI-infused technologies in retail is no different in this sense."

Then there are human qualities that will still be required even in a highly automated retail environment, like context for decisions, a critically important backup when technology fails or is corrupted, and relationship-building relations.

Thus, as technology advances, Walmart's and other retailers' challenge is to determine how best to transition the workforce to an automated workplace and the opportunities it will bring.

"Retailers must understand how technology will augment existing jobs and create new ones and how to train a workforce to fill these new positions and interact with future customers and trading partners," Sheffi added.