Amazon’s robots: job destroyers or dance partners?

The 100,000 orange robots that glide through Amazon warehouses and the thousands of Amazonians who build, program and use them are part of the evolving relationship between humans and their tools that awakens new possibilities but also new fears.

NORTH READING, Mass. — 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.

“It’s a proud-mama moment,” an Amazon spokeswoman said, during the first visit to the facility by a reporter since the e-commerce giant bought the former Kiva Systems in 2012. So far this year the company has graduated about 55,000 robots.

Robots perform numerous tests before being packed for shipping at the Amazon Robotics research and production facility in North Reading, Massachusetts. (Ian MacLellan / Special to The Seattle Times)

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.

Now, it’s the turn of robotics, a discipline that after decades of experimentation and recent big leaps in artificial intelligence has finally reached a maturity that allows mass deployment.

“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.

Fear of job losses

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…

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