Robots creeping up, play labs, crypto cruise

Good morning, Quartz readers!

Walmart will soon deploy 360 robot janitors across a few hundred of its stores. Using maps plotted by human employees, the AI-powered cleaners will placidly traverse the aisles, sweeping and buffing as they go—just as blue-aproned human employees used to do (and still will, in Walmart stores without an Auto-C, as the robots are called).

Perhaps the most striking thing about these robot workers is how not-striking they are. Sci-fi movies suggest a future full of humanoid robots who unnerve us with their “uncanny valley” qualities. Now the future is coming into view, and it looks like a giant Roomba. It’s easy to imagine walking absentmindedly past an Auto-C on a shopping trip without even registering its presence.

AI has already started to become a part of our everyday landscape. In New Jersey this week, dozens of workers were hospitalized after a robot at an Amazon fulfillment center accidentally punctured a can of bear repellent and enveloped workers in eye- and lung-searing fumes. Days earlier in California, an auto-piloted Tesla drove an allegedly drunk, sleeping “driver” down a highway, right alongside more more alert travelers no doubt alarmed by the scene in the next lane. (Highway patrol officers figured out on the spot how to stop the automated car.)

Of course, industrial accidents and drunk drivers existed well before AI. Tools with the power to alleviate the burden of physical labor—horses, threshing machines, self-driving cars—also come with the power to injure. And the presence of AI-powered machines just steps away from us is, for now, still a rarity for most people.

But the incremental nature of robots’ creep into our daily lives will make it harder to recognize—or object to—the bigger changes they bring later. Walmart insists that the robot janitors will give employees more time for customer service and other tasks. Critics point out that they could just as easily become an excuse to reduce staff and wages. And if customers get used to ignoring robot workers, they may be even less cognizant of the needs of the human ones. —Corinne Purtill

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

Are boot-cut jeans really coming back? The internet had a minor meltdown this week over a photo of a sad-looking man in a pair of droopy Balenciaga flares. But don’t panic, Jenni Avins tells us: Yes, pant-leg silhouettes are in the midst of a paradigm shift, but trends don’t work how they used to. “The internet has flattened the last few decades of trends and spattered them out.” In short, wear the jeans you like.

Quiz: How comfortable are you with these wellness trends? On a scale of “not comfortable at all” to “I love this idea,” test your reaction to nine real-life workplace wellness policies, and find out whether you are more or less open to them than the average American worker. The interactive was created by Lila MacLellan and Amanda Shendruk for The Talent Quotient, a special project from Quartz at Work.

A Christian missionary’s fatal trip to India. Scrutiny is mounting against the Kansas City–based All Nations missionary organization, which often targets isolated indigenous people, after the death of John Chau, whom it helped prepare for a “church-planting” trip to the Andaman and Nicobar islands. As Aria Thaker writes, Chau, proselytizing on a tourist visa, was killed by a protected tribe on a legally off-limits island.

Dropping in on Loon. Quartz’s Mike Murphy recently visited Loon (Google’s sister company) to see how it’s moving from a zany idea—using weather balloons to beam data around the world—to potentially bringing connectivity to millions. But this isn’t just humanitarian work: Alphabet’s cash cow, Google ad revenue, is starting to stagnate, and Loon can help bring new users online.

Where do the children play? Research shows play is crucial to children’s development—but kids in poor communities often lack opportunities to sing, run free, and immerse themselves in imaginary worlds. In Bangladesh, Jenny Anderson explains how hundreds of “play labs” developed by the NGO BRAC are showing that play is a key part of learning—and carving out space where both adults and kids feel joy in the process.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

Stuck on a cruise ship with crypto’s nouveau riche. What happens when you take a “literally captive” audience of hundreds of blockchain’s brightest (or at least richest) and send them to sea? For Breaker, Laurie Red boarded a half-empty cruise ship filled with 400 crypto investors, Eastern European “hostesses,” and swag socks that read “A man is always right.” If this is what the future looks like, it might be best to abandon ship.

A son’s brain tumor diagnosis sends a journalist to the frontiers of medicine. Thanks to the  genomics revolution, it’s now possible to understand and confront what drives some cancers. Michele Gershberg, US health editor for Reuters, explains in a deep dive how DNA sequencing helped her son fight cancer with simple pills rather than months of chemotherapy—and why not everyone can be so fortunate.

An experiment in getting to the airport. “I walked to the airport simply to see if it could be done,” writes urbanist Karrie Jacobs on Curbed. In the tradition of great expeditions, she navigates the tangle of highways and neighborhoods between a Long Island City diner and New York’s LaGuardia Airport and ruminates on why US airports aren’t more intertwined with civic life.

The rethinking of retirement. The UN estimates the world will have 2.1 billion people over age 60 by 2050. Around the world, governments (and companies) are grappling with the implications of aging populations, and reassessing how retirement works. For the New York Times, Katie Robertson examines ways countries are addressing the issue (paywall), from increasing the retirement age to reforming pension systems to incentivizing people to work longer.

When the US welcomed China’s scientists. Educational exchanges, especially with the US, “helped China transform from a poor and backward nation into a rising tech superpower over the past decades,” writes the South China Morning Post’s Zheping Huang. He interviews three Chinese scholars who traveled to America in the late 1970s, thanks to a program championed by Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping, and details their profound influence on Chinese industry in the years to come.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, retirement strategies, and boot-cut jeans to Join the next chapter of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was edited by Steve Mollman.