Amazon’s ‘collaborative’ robots offer peek into the future

Author: 
AFP
ID: 
1550631855030288700
Wed, 2019-02-20 03:01

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 young woman fitted out 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 new Amazon order fulfillment
center that opened on Staten Island in New York in September.
In an 80,000 square-meter (855,000 square-foot) 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, worn at Amazon warehouses since last year, is
key to the whole operation — it allows 21-year-old Deasahni
Bernard to safely enter the robot area, to pick up an object that
has fallen off its automated host, for example, or check if a
battery needs replacing.
Bernard only has to press a button and the robots stop or slow or
readjust their dance to accommodate her.

Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centers, which chief
technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the
way the company operates.
“What used to take more than a day now takes less than an
hour,” he said, explaining they are able to fit about 40 percent
more goods inside the same footprint.
For some, these fulfillment centers, which have helped cement
Amazon’s dominant position in global online sales, are a perfect
illustration of the looming risk of humans being pushed out of
certain business equations in favor of artificial intelligence.
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.
Bernard, who was a supermarket cashier before starting at Amazon,
agrees.
“I like this a lot better than my previous jobs,” she told AFP,
as Brady looked on approvingly.
What role do Amazon employees play in what Brady calls the
human-robot “symphony?“
In Staten Island, on top of tech-vest wearers like Bernard, there
are “stowers,” “pickers” and “packers” who respectively
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, according to Brady.
At the age of 51, he has worked with robotics for 33 years,
previously as a spacecraft engineer for MIT and on lunar landing
systems of the Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts.
He is convinced the use of “collaborative robots” is the key to
future human productivity — and job growth.
Since Amazon went all-in on robotics with the 2012 acquisition of
logistics robot-maker Kiva, gains have been indisputable, Brady
says.
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,” according to Brady.
“The data really can’t be denied on this: the more robots we
add to our fulfillment centers, the more jobs we are creating,”
he said, without mentioning 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 from “Star
Wars.”
Their partnership, in which “R2D2” is always ready to use his
computing powers to pull people out of desperate situations “is a
great example of how humans and robots can work together,” he
said.
But 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 unionize, at Staten Island and
other sites, have so far been successfully fought back by the
company, further fueling criticism.
At a press briefing held last month as part of the unionization
push, one employee of the facility, Rashad Long, spoke out about
what he said were unsustainable work conditions.
“We are not robots, we are human beings,” Long said.

Many suspect Amazon’s investment in robotics centers aims to
eventually automate positions currently held by humans.
For Kevin Lynch, an expert in robotics from Northwestern University
near Chicago, the development of collaborative robots is
“inevitable” and will indeed eventually eliminate certain jobs,
such as the final stage of packing at Amazon for instance.
“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 AI 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?“

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Amazon’s ‘collaborative’ robots offer peek into the future