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Amazon’s robots: job destroyers or dance partners?

11 August 2017

From the Seattle Times:

Every day is graduation day at Amazon Robotics.

Here’s where the more than 100,000 orange robots that glide along the floors of various Amazon warehouses are made, and taught their first steps.

Here they practice their first pirouettes. And heavy lifting too, as they twirl while hauling fabric shelves filled with cinder blocks.

And finally — once they’ve been given the green light by their makers — about 38 robots assemble in a tight four-row formation and in orderly fashion wheel themselves up onto pallets that will be shipped to one of the 25 Amazon warehouses that employ automatons.

Amazon staffers call it the “graduation ceremony,” and it takes place several times a day.

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These robots, and the thousands of Amazonians who build, program and use them, are laying out the next episode in a very old story — the evolving relationship between humans and their tools.

From the sharp stones wielded by our early ancestors to the internet, every step along the way has awakened new possibilities, and new fears too.

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“We’re at an inflection point — the ability of robots to be useful at a low-cost point,” said Beth Marcus, a robotics expert and startup founder who recently joined Amazon Robotics as a senior principal technologist.

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This latest wave of automation has spurred anxiety among scholars and policymakers. They warn it might contribute to a growing economic divide, in which workers with more education or the right skills reap the benefits of automation, while those with inadequate training are replaced by robots and increasingly left out of lucrative jobs.

It’s not a novel concern: Spinning jennies, which revolutionized the weaving industry, sparked similar resistance in 19th century England. And in the 1960s, the U.S. government created a task force to study the impact of technology on livelihoods. “If we understand it, if we plan for it, if we apply it well, automation will not be a job destroyer or a family displaced,” President Lyndon Johnson said at the time.

History has shown that, over time, job losses in rapidly advancing sectors are offset by gains in other activities spurred by a growing economy

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Amazon is the modern poster child for automation, and not only because of the orange warehouse robots. Its machine-learning software lets the company predict customer behavior. New retail concepts, such as the Amazon Go convenience store in downtown Seattle, heavily rely on sensor technology in an effort to do away with the need for cashiers.

Amazon is also working hard to have drones deliver items to people’s homes, a move that may replace a lot of delivery drivers.

But automation certainly hasn’t slowed down Amazon’s colossal appetite for people. The company’s payroll expansion has long exceeded revenue growth: In the quarter ended last June, its workforce grew by 42 percent to 382,400 jobs, versus sales growth of 25 percent.

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Amazon says that warehouses equipped with robotics typically see “greater job creation with more full-time employees,” due to the increased volume of orders these centers can handle.

Amazon also says automation has meant the creation of desirable, high-skilled jobs designing robots and teaching them how to do things, as well as middle-skilled jobs such as repairing the robots, or simply focusing on more sophisticated warehouse tasks while letting machines do the boring stuff.

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Another interesting aspect of the work, he said, is that the roboticists get plenty of feedback from the warehouse associates who will be dealing directly with the robots. For example, associates helped designers pick out the color of the new lightweight fabric shelves that the robots carry: yellow, because that makes it easier to see the items they carry.

And it was a maintenance worker at a warehouse who designed, and patented with Amazon’s help, a metal rod that staffers use to push inactive robots around the factory floor (it’s easier than picking up the 750-pound robots).

“Innovation is not restricted to a particular set of people,” Wellman said.

. . . .

Brady, the Amazon Robotics’ chief technologist, says the roboticists’ efforts have brought a more than 50 percent increase in storage efficiency at the Amazon warehouses that employ robots. That means they can contain more items in a smaller space.

Link to the rest at the Seattle Times

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Amazon, Video

4 Comments to “Amazon’s robots: job destroyers or dance partners?”

  1. Having worked one of those stores (too many decades ago) that the customer pulled a numbered tag from the items they wanted and then a runner had to go get them (I was one of those runners at the time), having the shelf brought to me sounds like a great idea! 😉

  2. Totally dance partners…if we can just start moving toward a society where people no longer depend on jobs for the necessities of life, and the main purpose of automation is to increase humans’ free time and happiness.

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