Robots and the Human Condition: Labor versus Robots, Who’s the Winner?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a trying time for everyone and we can all agree a lesson learned is that humans crave in-person social interaction. We have also found a desire to get back to basics – games with the family, getting back to nature, walking the dog. Things that are fundamental needs from our 3 billion+ year evolution.

At first glance, you may say that automation, robots, and AI are further distancing humans from each other and our basic needs, but the data tell a different story.

Jobs and e-Grocery

In 2021, Amazon added 500,000 jobs, Walmart added 170,000 personal shoppers to their workforce and Instacart added 350,000 shoppers.

Job growth from ecommerce, specifically online grocery ordering and delivery, has been extraordinary by any measure. Experts can debate the sustainability of post-COVID online grocery demand (see Fig. 1), but the trend line has been set, and it is here to stay. According to a Brick Meets Click study, 69.3 million U.S. households placed one or more online orders in March 2021 alone.

Figure 1, Source: Mercatus

Automating grocery fulfillment increases grocery store revenue and margins, improves order accuracy and increases speed of delivery. The improved profits are a result of maximizing the efficiency and productivity of the existing workforce using automation. This increased employee efficiency creates a slower rate of increase in jobs over time but that rate still continues to increase as the sector expands.  Prior to barcode scanners, for instance, warehouse and retail employees spent hours and days counting inventory by hand with a great margin of error. Industry automation and revolutionary technology made the process more efficient and accurate, and enabled employees to spend more time engaging shoppers.

As online grocery continues to expand, the total number of workers needed will continue to rise. It’s true that other sectors may experience job losses, but grocers will generate more same store revenue, and let’s not forget that human to human interaction is still going to be critical to their success. If traditional grocers fail to adopt automation technology, Amazon will make them extinct. A review of the general merchandise sector over the past decades proves that.

Labor Shortages

The COVID economy has created a huge chasm between the haves and the have nots. But as the pandemic winds down, it is clear there are more jobs than workers in many sectors.

Figure 2, Source: WSJ 4/17/2021

Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal project U.S. gross domestic product—the value of all goods and services produced—will grow 6.4% this year, measured from the fourth quarter of last year to the same period of this year. That would lift output to nearly 4% above its pre-pandemic level measured in the fourth quarter of 2019 (see fig. 2).

Meanwhile, economists expect employers to add 7.1 million jobs in the 12 months ending in December 2021, a gain of 5%.

The economy grew at a 4.1% rate in the fourth quarter of 2020, and employment demand is on the rise.   Many of the positions that automation replaces are the most challenging to fill and have high turnover.    The costs of constantly recruiting training and then losing employees is a heavy burden on retailers.  While the average employee turnover for all U.S. industries is around 19 percent, the rate in the retail industry is just above 60 percent, according to the National Retail Federation.

Looking past the current economic cycle and pending labor shortages, there is an even more pressing macro trend. There has long been a concern that human population growth would outstrip the capacity of the planet, but we now face population decline.

Wikipedia: 4/16/2021 

Up until the beginning of the industrial revolution, global population grew very slowly. After about 1800 the growth rate accelerated to a peak of 2.1% annually in 1968; but since then, due to the world-wide collapse of the total fertility rate, it has declined to 1.1% today (2020).[2] Long-term projections predict that the growth rate of the human population of this planet will continue to decline, and that by the end of the 21st Century, will reach zero.[2]

Examples of this emerging trend are Japan, whose population is currently (2015–2020) declining at the rate of 0.2% per year,[2] and China, whose population could start declining in 2027 or sooner.[3] By 2050, Europe’s population is projected to be declining at the rate of 0.3% per year.[2]

Possible consequences of long-term national population decline can be net positive or negative. If a country can increase its workforce productivity faster than its population is declining, the results, both in terms of its economy, the quality-of-life of its citizens, and the environment, can be net positive. If it cannot increase workforce productivity faster than its population’s decline, the results can be mostly net negative.

Automation presents an opportunity to increase the productivity of each worker and raise the standard of living while offsetting current and impending labor shortages.

Quality of Work and Career Development

Alert’s mission statement starts out, ‘Our mission is to improve lives through innovation….’ Alert automates e-grocery fulfillment and other e-commerce verticals by designing robotic systems to perform tasks normally performed by humans. For grocery customers, it’s simple to see that we are improving lives by reducing the cost of e-grocery fulfillment and getting those orders to you faster and more accurately.

When meetings end early, the meeting organizer often says, ‘I’m giving you time back.’  Automating the grocery shopping experience does just that at scale. The average shopper in the U.S. spends 53 hours a year buying groceries, not including transportation time. And about 30% of the population are active grocery shoppers according to FMI data. So, if everyone shifted to e-grocery shopping in the U.S., we would be giving back 5.25 BILLION HOURS per year. Over the course of a lifetime, each person would get back 3,100 hours which is almost two years of work, play, family time or education!

But would a retail grocery worker agree that automation in the form of Alphabot is improving their lives?

There’s no question that I have achieved a privileged position in the workforce, but I have also landscaped, washed dishes, and maintained heavy equipment. I know both the rewards and the demands of physical work; it can wear you out. I was recently chatting with a worker, a retail grocery veteran who is using the Alphabot platform and asked what she thought of the system, she responded, ‘this is the best job I have had in my 14 years!’

Staffers working with robotic systems are affectionately called bot wranglers. The implication is that the robots are working for you, not the other way around. This is Alert’s goal. Robots increase productivity, eliminate repetitive tasks, and make work better. Retailing often has the perception of a dead-end job. While it is true that retail tends to be an entry level job into the workforce, most retailers provide education, training, and career development.Alert Innovation Academy  Alert developed the Alert Innovation Academy to train existing retail employees to work with the Alphabot system. Alert Innovation Academy has a career development trajectory that graduates workers from operators to robotics tech 1, tech 2 and even systems operation manager. Associates can start stocking shelves and become a robotics expert!

Beyond the retail grocery worker, third party technical support and service companies are also trained via the Alert Innovation Academy to expertly maintain the Alphabot platform. This is just one part of a whole new ecosystem that automation drives – manufacturing, engineering, quality, service and more. Alert strives to turbocharge this ecosystem and corresponding job growth in the U.S.

And what happens to the grocery experience?

The immediate impact of automation improves the shopper experience on many levels – aisle congestion from gig shoppers goes away, order accuracy goes up and deliveries are faster. Looking further down the road, there is a tremendous opportunity for grocers to redeploy employees in the store so they can focus on experiential shopping. This is a concept at Alert called Novastore. Human interaction with the butcher, the baker, the team in produce, in store cafes and cooking demos. It is back to meeting basic human needs of shoppers and real workers engaging in real interactions in person.

So, are robots good?

If you are familiar with Peter Diamandis’ book ‘Abundance’ or are a student of psychology, you will appreciate that we humans tend to look at things with a half glass empty perspective. The fear of potential loss is much greater than our appreciation of potential gain.

However, historical data tells us that things keep getting better. If you look at the following charts, we are working almost half the hours today as in 1870 and wages have increased over 20 fold and poverty is down 80%.

So are robots good? They are the continued progression of electricity replacing candlelight, and cars replacing horses. They deliver more productivity, higher quality work and an increased standard of living, giving us back time to engage with customers and get back to basics of building a better future together with few downsides.

Alert Innovation Establishes Alert Innovation Academy

Training and development programs offer path to future in automation for retail associates; support vendors and third-party service companies in Alphabot eco-system

BOSTON, MA, May 19, 2021 Alert Innovation, Inc., the thought leaders behind the fully automated Novastore supermarket concept and makers of the Alphabot® system, the retail industry’s most effective automated ecommerce fulfillment solution, is launching a training and career development organization for retail associates, managers, and third party service providers. Alert Innovation Academy trains employees to work with the Alphabot system using interactive programs that cover topics like safety, basic operation, troubleshooting, preventive maintenance, overall system management, and detailed servicing for experts.

“We are excited to offer Alert Innovation Academy as an automation career development path for traditional retail associates. We view the Academy as just one part of a whole new ecosystem that automation is driving, including manufacturing, engineering, quality, service and more. Our ability to train and develop the professionals needed to support that automation ecosystem will drive expansion and create job growth,” said John Lert, Founder and CEO of Alert Innovation.

Alert Innovation Academy starts with training retail associates to operate the Alphabot system, then provides a career path to robotics technician 1 and technician 2, where they learn much more about automation technology. The Academy also offers programs for those interested in the systems operations manager role. Beyond retail staff members, the Academy trains third party technical support and service companies to expertly maintain the Alphabot platform.

About Alert Innovation, Inc

Founded in 2013, Alert Innovation’s mission is to improve people’s lives through innovation, starting with retail, by transforming how people shop and how retailers operate. Alert Innovation has brought to market the Alphabot® Automated Storage and Retrieval System and Automated Each-Picking System and is creating a new kind of automated supermarket called Novastore™. More information is available at

Media Contact:

Cristina Rodrigues
Alert Innovation
+1 401.529.4980

Alert Innovation Forms Retail Advisory Council to Support Product Development and Customer Value Creation

Partners with Leading Retail, Technology and Merchandising Thought Leaders to Launch Retail Advisory Council

BOSTON, MA, March 31, 2021 Alert Innovation, Inc., the thought leaders behind the fully automated Novastore supermarket concept and makers of the Alphabot® system, the retail industry’s most effective automated ecommerce fulfillment solutions, announces the formation of the Alert Innovation Retail Advisory Council (RAC). The RAC will leverage the experience, skills and networks of Council members to improve performance of the Alphabot system for retailers, brands and shoppers.

Founding members of the Alert Innovation RAC include the following executives and academics with deep expertise across retailing, consumer products and technology:

  • Peter Fader – Professor of Marketing, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
  • Chris Haimbach – US Head of Sales, Commercial Strategy & Operations, Consumer Health Care, Bayer
  • Ann Raider – Executive Global Retail, IRI & Consultant, Ann Raider Consulting
  • Peter Larkin – Former President & CEO of National Grocers Association

“I am delighted our leadership team is working with such a great group of industry thought leaders. They will contribute to more rapid improvements of our Alphabot retail ecommerce order automation platform,” said John Lert, Founder and CEO of Alert Innovation.

The RAC will meet four times annually and have additional interactions with the Alert leadership team between sessions. Each member will serve a one year term with the potential to be renamed to the council.

“Store automation is the critical and fast growing retail technology area due to the acceleration of online shopping during the pandemic. It is exciting to experience this trend first hand and support Alert’s management team as they are very innovative and  new ground so important in helping retailers deliver added value to their customers while improving their own operating performance,” said Ann Raider.

Note to editors: Photos of the RAC members are available.

About Alert Innovation, Inc

Founded in 2013, Alert Innovation’s mission is to improve people’s lives through innovation, starting with retail, by transforming how people shop and how retailers operate. Alert Innovation has brought to market the Alphabot® Automated Storage and Retrieval System and Automated Each-Picking System and is creating a new kind of automated supermarket called Novastore™. More information is available at

Media Contact:

RAM Communications
Ron Margulis

PODCAST: Robots! and how they will transform grocery shopping

Thank you to Peter Crosby and Rob Gonzalez for featuring Alert Innovation’s Founder and CEO on the podcast Unpacking the Digital Shelf, by the Digital Shelf Institute.


We got to talk about Alert Innovation, the automation of grocery stores, and all things robots. Listen to the episode or view the transcript here:


There are links on the page above to subscribe to hear it on whatever Podcast platform you use (ie Apple, Spotify, Google Play).


Alert Innovation’s Alphabot to be Deployed by MURATEC at Japan's Leading Sports Retailer

Alpen Co., Ltd., aims for a 60% reduction in logistics operations plus benefits from Japan's first 3D robot warehouses

BOSTON, MA – Alert Innovation, Inc., the maker of the retail industry’s most effective automated fulfillment solutions, and Murata Machinery, Ltd. (Muratec) are supplying Alpen Co., Ltd., one of the largest sports retail brands in Japan, with that country’s first 3D robot warehousing system. Called Alphabot®, the solution being installed at Alpen distribution centers uses robot cart technology developed by Alert Innovation, which formed a strategic partnership with Muratec in 2019, to automate everything from storage to picking.

Alpen is expanding its outlets nationwide to meet the diversifying needs of customers in the sports retail industry under the corporate slogan “Making sports more accessible.” As part of this expansion, the retailer is implementing Alphabot warehousing systems featuring 130 robot carts selecting from about 26,000 case locations at its distribution centers.

“We are delighted to see our partner Muratec winning business with the Alphabot solution in a highly competitive market. This is a validation of both the capabilities of Muratec as a company and the breakthrough design of Alphabot. We look forward to seeing many more deployments of the technology by Muratec in the future,” said Alert Innovation CEO and Founder John Lert.

Alpen and Muratec expect the Alphabot system to reduce logistics operations by complementing its storage capacity and reducing picking, sorting and packaging activities by approximately 60%. Other benefits from the introduction of the Alphabot system include expanding the range of SKUs handled, enhancing worker productivity and improving sorting and shipping efficiency.


About Alert Innovation, Inc

Founded in 2013, Alert Innovation’s mission is to improve people’s lives through innovation, starting with retail, by transforming how people shop and how retailers operate. Alert Innovation has brought to market the Alphabot Automated Storage and Retrieval System and Automated Each-Picking System and is creating a new kind of automated supermarket called Novastore™. More information is available at

Media Contacts:

RAM Communications
Ron Margulis

What I Learned on my Summer Internship - How to Work Alone

One of our summer Interns in electrical engineering was profiled in a story on the front page of Wall Street Journal today.

We were able to do some great work with our Interns this summer, whether that meant software coding done remotely, shipping them mechanical projects to work on remotely or having them work part time, safely,  in our lab (as Manjusha Chava did).

We had 15 paid interns this summer, down from our normal 30. We will be interviewing again this Fall for next summer’s program. Join our mailing list (email field in footer of this page) to make sure you know about the recruiting schedule.

Read the story here as a PDF:

What I Learned on My Summer Internship_ How to Work Alone – WSJ

Read the story at the Wall Street Journal website [paywall].


Alphabot® Flexible Mobile Robotics Approach to Micro-Fulfillment Delivers Significant Advantages

Alert Innovation offers groundbreaking micro fulfillment center technology to meet the demanding requirements of e-Grocery and other industry applications. We have over 50 patents issued or pending in support of these innovations.

What makes the Alphabot System unique in the world is its ability to transform itself from a mobile robot, operating in two horizontal dimensions, into a vertical lift, move itself and its payload to any storage or workstation elevation, and then resume horizontal operation at that new elevation.

Our Flexible Mobile Robotics solution offers some significant advantages over Traditional Fixed Automation such as “shuttle” technology. When comparing micro fulfillment solutions, especially to automate inside a grocery store, please consider these Alphabot System advantages:

Handle all three temperature zones?

The Alphabot System can pick from ambient, chilled and frozen. Most other solutions require you to manually pick frozen items from your store floor.

Can the automation store completed orders in the system (in the correct temperature zone) until the customer is ready to pick up or the delivery driver arrives?

The Alphabot System stores the picked orders until the customer or delivery driver arrives at the store and then quickly dispenses all order totes. Most other solutions require you to dispense the order as soon as it is picked and requires you to have lots of freezers and refrigerators and racks outside of the automation system to store the completed orders which then need to be manually consolidated when the customer arrives.

Built-in order consolidation

The Alphabot System removes the consolidation step required by shuttle systems. Order totes can be dispensed to meet any business need without needed to consolidate multiple totes in an order.

Does your automation rely on chemical batteries to power the robots?

Alphabot Robots do not use chemical batteries (for example lithium-ion). Alert Innovation’s Alphabots use supercapacitors to power their movement. This removes the fire risk associated with charging batteries. Also, our supercapacitors fully charge in seconds as they travel vertically (rather than being sidelined for parts of the day to recharged.) As an added plus, supercapacitor powered robots are not impacted by cold temperatures, but rather perform even better in the chilled and frozen sections of our storage and retrieval systems.

Can the automation store products in sub-totes to enable significantly more SKUs in the system than totes and enable less than full case replenishment to further expand space available for additional SKUs?

The Alphabot System enables retailer to decant product at case quantity into full, one-half and one-third totes. We will soon be offering one-sixth and one-eighth subtotes to dramatically increase SKU count for smaller items.

Can the automation dispense orders directly to customers via a pick-up portal or to their car using the same robots used to store and retrieves totes?

Alphabot Robots can now dispense to a self-service pick up portal on the outside wall of the store for use by consumers or delivery drivers. Shortly, transit rails will enable our robots to leave the storage structure and move at elevation in delivering and picking up payloads at other locations within the operating facility or further into the parking lot.

Lower Total System Cost

In comparison to any shuttle system, the Alphabot solution costs less because the Alphabot robot performs all the functions of the shuttle robot, the lift, the conveyors and related transfers, and the workstation mechanisms that flow the totes through the workstation. Further, Alphabot features higher utilization during peak periods due to lack of captivity and random accessibility.

Higher Reliability

The Alphabot System is much more reliable than a shuttle system because the robots are the only moving part in the micro-fulfillment center. No Alphabot system has a single point of failure that can shut down the operation (such as lifts and conveyors). If a robot fails, other robots can route around it and the robot can be easily removed for repair at a convenient time. Alphabot offers a massively parallel, redundant architecture and this fault tolerance is critical in automating a grocery store.

Faster Speed

The Alphabot architecture enables high rates of product flow between storage and workstations, resulting in exceptionally fast order-completion times. Additionally, Alphabot currently enables human capable picking of 900 each per hour per workstation with higher pick speeds in development. Alphabot can pick grocery orders at peak demand from three temperature zones in 4 minutes average and 8 minutes 95th percentile.

Greater Space Utilization Efficiency

The Alphabot System currently uses single-deep tote storage, which utilizes roughly 65% of available storage volume. The ability of robots to climb enables unprecedented “transactional” density by stacking picking stations vertically. Overall, Alphabot space utilization cannot be matched when defined as throughput capacity (picking transactions per hour) per cubic feet of space used. Additionally, horizontal robot traffic is distributed vertically, requires less floor space and removes the congestion that shuttle systems face when having to move all bots on one level (or in the case of hive systems like Ocado or Autostore, on the top level).

Easier Scalability

Without any captivity of throughput assets with storage assets, The Alphabot System throughput and storage capacities can be scaled independently. The number of robots and workstations scale linearly with throughput, so it is a purely variable capex component. Modularity enables easy expandability. Put another way, Alphabot enables the retailer to meet growing eCommerce volume by simply adding more bots. Conversely, shuttle systems force the retailer to add storage capacity in order to get more bots and hence throughput.


In summary, micro-fulfillment is a hot topic for retailers and especially grocery retailers. The pressure is on for grocers to satisfy consumers’ ecommerce demands in a cost-effective manner. However, this article has pointed out how Alert Innovation’s patented Flexible Mobile Robotics approach provides distinct advantages over legacy traditional fixed automation like shuttles (for example from Knapp or Dematic) and HIVE systems (for example from AutoStore.)