Ballerina bots of the Amazon job-pocalypse

The future: A robotic platform carries a rack in a storage area at an Amazon distribution centre in Spain. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

The future: A robotic platform carries a rack in a storage area at an Amazon distribution centre in Spain. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

New York — Hundreds of orange robots zoom and whiz back and forth like miniature bumper cars but, instead of colliding, they’re following a carefully plotted path to transport thousands of items ordered from online giant Amazon. A woman in a red safety vest, with pouches full of sensors and radio transmitters on her belt and a tablet in hand, moves through their complicated choreography.

This robot ballet takes place at the Amazon order fulfillment centre on Staten Island in New York. In an 80 000 square-metre space filled with the whirring sounds of machinery, the Seattle-based e-commerce titan has deployed some of the most advanced instruments in the rapidly growing field of robots capable of collaborating with humans.

The high-tech vest is key to the operation — it allows Deasahni Bernard to enter the robot area safely.
She only has to press a button and the robots stop or slow or readjust their dance to accommodate her. 

Amazon now has more than 25 robotic centres, which have changed the way the company operates, according to the chief technologist for Amazon Robotics, Tye Brady.

“What used to take more than a day now takes less than an hour,” he said, explaining they are able to fit about 40% more goods inside the same footprint.

For some, these centres, which have helped to cement Amazon’s dominant position in global online sales, are a perfect illustration of the risk of people being pushed out of certain business equations in favour of artificial intelligence (AI). But Brady argues that robot-human collaboration at the Staten Island facility, which employs more than 2 000 people, has given them a “beautiful edge” over the competition.

What role do Amazon employees play in what Brady calls the human-robot symphony?

In Staten Island, on top of tech-vest wearers such as Bernard, there are stowers, pickers and packers who load up products, match up products meant for the same customers and build shipping boxes — all with the help of screens and scanners. At every stage, the goal is to “extend people’s capabilities” so the humans can focus on problem-solving and intervene if necessary, Brady said. 

He has worked with robotics for 33 years, previously as a spacecraft engineer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and on lunar landing systems for the Draper Laboratory.

He is convinced the use of collaborative robots is the key to future human productivity and job growth.

Since Amazon embraced robotics with the 2012 acquisition of logistics robot-maker Kiva, gains have been indisputable, Brady said. They’ve created 300 000 new jobs, bringing the total number of worldwide Amazon employees up to 645 000, not counting seasonal jobs.

“It’s a myth that robotics and automation kills jobs, it’s just a myth,” said Brady. “The data really can’t be denied on this: the more robots we add to our fulfillment centres, the more jobs we are creating.”

He didn’t mention the potential for lost jobs at traditional stores.

For Brady, the ideal example of human-robot collaboration is the relationship between R2D2 and Luke Skywalker in the film Star Wars. Their partnership, in which R2D2 uses his computing powers to pull people out of desperate situations, “is a great example of how humans and robots can work together”, he said.

Despite Brady’s enthusiasm for a robotic future, many are suspicious of the trend — a wariness that extends to the corporate giant, which this month scrapped high-profile plans for a new New York headquarters in the face of local protests.

Attempts by Amazon employees to unionise, at Staten Island and other sites, have so far been successfully fought by the company.

At a press briefing held last month, one employee, Rashad Long, spoke out about what he said were unsustainable work conditions. “We are not robots we are human beings.”

Many suspect Amazon’s investment in robotics centres aims to automate positions held by people.

For Kevin Lynch, of Northwestern University near Chicago, the development of collaborative robots is inevitable and will eventually eliminate certain jobs, such as the final stage of packing at Amazon.

“I also think other jobs will be created,” he said. “But it’s easier to predict the jobs that will be lost than the jobs that will be created.

“Robotics and artificial intelligence bring clear benefits to humanity, in terms of our health, welfare, happiness, and quality of life,” said Lynch, who believes public policy has a key role to play in ensuring those benefits are shared, and that robotics and artificial intelligence do not sharpen economic inequality.

“The growth of robotics and AI is inevitable,” he said. “The real question is: ‘How do we prepare for our future with robots?’ ” — AFP

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