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Why so nervous about robots, Wal-Mart?

Wal-Mart-bashing appears to be a national sport these days, with legions of Wal-Mart critics growing faster than the retail empire can build new stores. In particular, the company's labor practices are a lightning rod for criticism. So it's no wonder that the company has struck a rather defensive note regarding a rumored interest in robotic labor.

I got a dose of Wal-Mart's defensive posture first-hand last week when reporting a feature story published today on the future of inventory-checking robots. After an executive at Frontline Robotics informed me that Wal-Mart is eyeing robot technology, I called Wal-Mart for confirmation.

Wal-Mart representative Christi Gallagher, the company's spokeswoman on supply chain and technology issues, took my call. She also happens to be the media point person on labor relations and employment litigation.

As soon as I mentioned robots, Gallagher seemed eager to end the call. "We are not looking into robots in any way, shape or form," she said abruptly. I tried probing for more, but she had nothing further to offer.

The response was curious because, when a public relations person is faced out-of-the-blue with questions on a random topic like robots, he or she would typically pause, jot down some notes, and say something along the lines of, "Gosh, I have no idea about that, but I'll check into it for you."

And I am apparently not the first to hit a Wal-Mart nerve with a robot story. As I noted in today's story, the company's attorneys took a particular interest in an eWeek report in May about a robot Wal-Mart is apparently testing in a Utah store. The robot, developed at Utah State University, is designed to guide visually impaired shoppers and locate products for them.

Wal-Mart's lawyers called the university after it learned of the story, and a university representative then retracted earlier statements about Wal-Mart's interest in investing in further development of the robots.

So why is Wal-Mart so touchy about robots? My hunch is that Wal-Mart's interest in robots goes far beyond helping the visually impaired shop. I think it's intrigued by the notion of using robots in its warehouses, distribution centers and stores to monitor and check inventory -- a job mostly done by people today, as one Frontline Robotics executive noted.

"After hours, robots could run around stores in a systematic pattern and take a complete inventory of all the shelves," said Rob Richards, chief operating officer of Frontline. "We have people now that do that."

But to my mind, robot-talk is the least of Wal-Mart's labor woes, which include accusations of sexual discrimination, low pay, poor benefits, worker safety violations and child labor law violations. The company has also been embroiled in widespread overtime pay disputes and is in trouble with the Department of Labor over employing illegal immigrants.

So, Wal-Mart, relax about robots!