Amazon enters the age of robots. What does that mean for its workers? | Amazon

TWrapped in a metal cage in a corner of 350,000 square feet Amazon A warehouse outside of Boston last week, a single yellow robot arm sorted into parcels, getting items ready to be shipped to customers who demanded ever-faster delivery. Others will soon join her in a development that could mean the end of thousands of jobs and, Amazon argues, the creation of thousands more.

While the bot was working, a screen appeared showing its progress. It was carefully packed into a bowl of protein powder, then came a box of napkin rings and then…a tube of hemorrhoid cream. While 100 journalists from around the world snapped the photos, someone switched the screen to hide the cream.

One day soon, a robot, called Sparrow, could do the work of hundreds of thousands of people Amazon now employs to sort the 13 million packages it delivers each year. Using computer vision and artificial intelligence, Amazon says Sparrow can already identify about 65% of its product inventory, see if an item has been damaged and discarded, and adjust its sticking “hand” to handle different things — all jobs that human hands currently perform. As you know, it is getting better day by day.

The Sparrow, whose rollout is likely to begin next year, was just one of the new army of robots on display for the first time at Amazon’s “Delivery of the Future” conference last Thursday. Other innovations included an autonomous green robot called Proteus – resembling a giant Roomba capable of moving heavy loads around cavernous bunkers. The company also showcased its latest drone, which it hopes will allow the company to deliver 500 million packages by air by the end of the decade. Another corner of Amazon’s BOS27 warehouse is equipped with fake grass, fake house fronts complete with welcome mats, and a giant electric delivery truck with technology to inform drivers of the best routes and give “training” to drive better. Behind a white picket fence, a drone sat on the grass, a picture of how Amazon believes its millions of customers will one day receive their orders.

An Amazon worker is outside with a drone behind him.
Amazon hopes to have the drones deliver 500 million packages by air by the end of the decade. Image: Amazon

The 2020s will be the “era of applied robotics,” said Ty Brady, chief technology officer at Amazon Robotics. “Robots will do meaningful tasks and augment human capabilities. I feel like it took 50 years to get here. It’s exciting!”

In recent years, Amazon has become one of the largest private sector employers in the world, with salaries exceeding 1.6 million as of 2021. And this growth has not come without pain. Amazon fights age and nail To stop American warehouse workers angry at low wages and constant pressure from forming unions and Wall Street was decisive from perceived over-employment. Robot packing tools, robotic actuators, and robot deliveries can be an answer to these issues.

Brady does not agree. People expected robots to destroy the job market for decades. As early as 1933, the economist John Maynard Keynes has predicted that large-scale technological unemployment is to come “because of our discovery of the means of economizing on the use of labor beyond the pace at which we can find new uses of labour.”

“I just don’t see it at all,” Brady said. “We made our first serious investment in robotics over 10 years ago, and in those 10 years we’ve created over a million jobs.” He said more robots would boost warehouse efficiency which means they could store more merchandise, Amazon would sell more stuff and more people would be needed to make sure everything was running smoothly.

“There will always be a need for people to solve problems and use common sense,” he said. “We’re not that close with robots. It’s not even close. We have millions of years of evolution for the 20-watt human brain and bananas, which is incredible.”

Yellow robotic arm puts a package in a box.
The Sparrow robotic arm will be introduced next year. Image: Amazon

Brady may be right about the job numbers. a recent report From the US government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, he said there is “little support” for the idea that the new era of intelligent machines will destroy jobs. Economists even have a term to suggest this – the “labour mass” fallacy. Innovation may destroy occupations but there is no fixed number of jobs and new ones take their place. Warehouse jobs, for example, have replaced retail jobs as online shopping has decimated malls.

But all this change isn’t necessarily good for workers. In a research paper for the University of Berkeley Job Center, Beth Gutelius and Nick Theodore finished too Technical innovations in warehouses are unlikely to cost significant job losses. But, they said, employers “may use technology in ways that reduce the skill requirements of jobs in order to reduce training times and turnover costs. This could lead to negative effects on workers, such as wage stagnation and job insecurity.”

It is unlikely that such arguments will slow the bot revolution at Amazon. The company is the largest manufacturer of industrial robots in the world. Its facilities in Boston already produce 330,000 robots annually. And all to ensure that toothpaste – or hemorrhoid cream – delivers faster. And that’s what people want, Brady said, “We’re going to react and we’re going to be obsessed with what the customer wants, and if they want their toothpaste faster, we’re going to help them get their toothpaste out faster,” he said.

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