Being at the forefront of automation, why is Amazon downplaying the impact of AI and robotics?
Breakthroughs in machine learning (ML) and robotics are drastically enabling a faster and cheaper means of delivery and manufacturing. We all want our packages instantly at lower costs and companies want higher margins. But what’s the overall impact on our society as we automate more and more tasks in factories and warehouses?
Among the world’s largest companies, Amazon, in particular, has faced heightened scrutiny. The e-commerce giant has been the major driving force behind the now widespread reality of warehouse automation and same-day delivery, pushing its peers and suppliers like DHL to test a range of robotic technology just to keep up.
Amazon was criticized for pressing workers to physical limits while continuously automating jobs, impacting 125,000 full-time hourly associates and an additional 120,000 seasonal workers across its logistics and warehouse centers in the United States. Against the backdrop of public scrutiny, we see Amazon delaying, rather than encouraging, more candid and transparent discussions of how we as a society transition.
What Amazon Got Right
While we may still be years away from “fully” automating every step of complete orders in warehouses, certain stages of orders are already being automated, and there will be a cascade of automation during the next few years. In other words, the technology is already here to automate enough to be efficient and cost-effective.
Compared to robots, humans are still much more flexible and have a better visual perception as well as gripping capabilities (We still haven’t invented any gripper that is nearly as dexterous as human fingers).
Furthermore, humans don’t use low-level languages to describe seemingly intuitive tasks like grasping. While most of us can easily pick and place various objects without even thinking about it, robots need to learn to grasp from scratch as they lack crucial context including physics like friction and center of gravity. (That’s why we can’t simply apply current metrics for human to robotic grasping. I will explain more about this in my next post.)
The picking process can be really complex, ranging from zone picking, discrete picking, all the way to batch picking. It also involves several steps including receiving, sorting, palletizing, depalletizing, picking, checking and packing, labeling, and shipping. Many of these steps have been automated but we are still years away from fully automating this process. Amazon is right in highlighting the limitations of current AI and robotics technology compared to the superior cognitive and manipulation ability of humans. However, there are important trends that Amazon hopes you miss.
What Amazon Hopes You Missed
High-density storage system startups like Attabotics and Commonsense Robotics emerged as retailers demand faster and more efficient delivery solutions.
The top three markets where the most predictable physical work resides are:
- Accommodation and food
- Transportation and warehousing (source: Mckinsey report)
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of warehouse workers grew from 662k in 2009 to over 1.18m in 2019 with a CAGR of 5.96%. If the growth continues, there will be over 2.1m warehouse workers by the year 2029. Even if it really takes Amazon and other retailers 10 years to “fully automate every step of order”, that implies that more than two million jobs being automated in the next decade.
Is 10 years a long time? Is it enough time for millions of workers and for the society to get ready for such a drastic shift? What we do know for sure is that millions of people will be impacted if we continue to deny the inevitable future of automation and waste the last chance we have to get prepared.
Whether discontinuing its “Amazon picking challenge” or putting out articles downplaying the pace of automation, Amazon seems to be trying everything it can to avoid public scrutiny. There is no doubt that repetitive jobs will be replaced by automation, as they should be. Amazon knows this better than anyone else. Why would the company be planning to spend $700m over the next six years to retrain a third of its U.S workers, if they are not anticipating large job cuts in the near future? Is this too little too late?
Can big companies including Amazon take a much more active role in making their plans for automation more transparent and beneficial to all parties?
Instead of wrongly assuming that workers don’t want to change and therefore soft-pedaling plans for automation, companies should work with their employees to transition to working with robots in jobs that are dangerous or repetitive and that workers would rather not do by themselves. This will help people get higher-skilled jobs with better wages in our future economy.