A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Sep 9, 2017

Amazon's Use of Robots in the Workplace Is Rising - But Employee Numbers Not Necessarily Falling

Use of robotics is making Amazon more efficient, but it is finding that it still needs more people, who perform other tasks. The issue is to what degree the company is responding with this sort of data because it is acutely conscious of the political and public relations impact of stories about job loss due to technology, especially as jobs outside the company are affected.

Multipurpose robots are here to stay, but their role - and that of their human co-workers - is still evolving. JL


Tamara Chuang reports in the Denver Post:

Amazon (says) robots haven’t reduced the number of humans working for (it). Its new 855,000sq ft robotics fulfillment center will employ 50% more workers than the non-robotics one, which is 1 million square feet.“We’re building Amazon fulfillment centers smaller because we can use the space better.” The company has 25 robotics fulfillment centers worldwide. “We’re not building those multi-stories where we have to build walkways for employees. We can store 50% more inventory in a (robotics) center. And it enables faster fulfillment speed.”
It’s only about 50 feet to the shipping station, but if employees at Cochlear Americas had to walk each order back and forth, they would work longer days.
They used to do the walk. That was before “Morty,” the autonomous-moving cart, joined the hearing-implant company in Centennial in January. Morty — also called Robbie or Suzy, depending on which Cochlear employee you ask — maneuvers between workstations, curious visitors and unidentified objects as it thoughtfully takes packages between workstations to the shipping area all day long. If something gets in its way, it pauses to think and then tries to find a way around the roadblock. It doesn’t complain about heavy packages, route monotony or sore wheels at the end of a shift.
“We actually put Fitbits on employees and they walked 18,000 steps (each per day), which is quite a lot,” said Nils Alstad, Cochlear’s director of supply chain, who was looking for ways to speed up the order completion process. “What the robot does for us is not have our employees walk around so much. … We are shipping 6 to 8 percent more orders and we’re shipping between 11 to 14 percent more items per person. We’ve definitely seen a difference in our world.”
Thinking robots are already working among us. Canvas Technology, which developed the autonomous cart in Boulder, made some tweaks this week so that Morty automatically recharges itself while employees are on break. RoboCourier mobile robots, from Denver-based Swisslog, have been roaming hospitals for the past decade to deliver items like medicine and clean bedsheets. Over in Boulder, robots are parking cars. And sometime next year, Amazon will open its first robot-friendly fulfillment center in Colorado.
But it’s not like the world is welcoming Morty with open arms. That’s because such robots are taking over jobs that humans have — though many of those jobs are low-paying and repetitive. There’s also the concern that artificially intelligent machines could one day become evil; robots have “Vastly more risk than North Korea,” tweeted tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Robots have worked in industrial sites for decades, but at the office?
“There’s no doubt that this has created a lot of anxiety, not just for people in the working class and front lines, but as artificial intelligence moves into American offices, it begins to affect this broader middle employment level,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution who recently published a report on where the industrial robots are. (They’re mostly in Midwest states, led by Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.) “That is beginning to get a lot of people’s attention.”
Getting to the era of sentient robots is tough for scientists and still a long ways off, believes Justin Davis, with Lakewood-based Gamma 2 Robotics. Gamma 2, which sells a security robot, is suffering from the backlash of Knightscope, a competitor whose own K5 security robot became a viral butt of jokes this summer after falling into an office fountain. Knightscope blamed K5’s lack of common sense after its “algorithm was unable to detect a certain wheel skid caused by the ‘loose brick surface treatment.’ ” The client was credited for a month’s service.

“The singularity at which the machines become smarter than we is truly a long way off. It’s truly science fiction at this point,” Davis said. “The founders’ vision was artificial intelligence, a cybernetic brain. They wanted to architect in a way similar to a human brain but even right now, we’re years from making that. There’s still so much computing that has to happen.”
More advanced personal robots are in development, including at Boulder startup Misty Robotics. The company, which spun out of popular toy-robot maker Sphero, is working on getting a robot in every home and office.
“We’re moving from highly specialized and expensive robots to much more affordable robots that are multipurpose,” said Tim Enwall, Misty’s CEO.  Better sensory systems that can quickly process — or “learn” — new information are moving the world from robots that do the same task a million times to robots that can handle hundreds of tasks at home or work.
“Today’s early adopter market has focused on bringing single-task robots (like Roomba) and AI devices (such as Google Home or Alexa) into their daily lives. That has helped prime early adopting consumers to being accustomed to technology being interwoven into tasks throughout the day,” Enwall said. But not everyone is ready for that, he added.
“There are still several steps required for the market to grow to make way for a multipurpose robot like Misty,” he said.
Gamma 2’s security robot, named Ramsee, was preparing for a trial gig at a local museum in July, but that was called off after the K5 drowning incident. The museum decided it wasn’t ready for a robot security guard.
That’s not stopping Gamma 2 from moving forward. Ramsee can map the room it must patrol and follow directions, such as barking like a dog if it detects potential intruders. It identifies things that humans can’t, like carbon dioxide or poisonous gases. It sends an alarm to humans if, for example, it’s 3 a.m. and Ramsee senses motion where nothing should be moving. Ramsee can supplement a human security team or be the active guard on duty for companies with only security cameras.
“If you look at menial tasks that are pervasive, like picking items in a warehouse or the delivery of fast food, these are jobs that have long been human-tasked but are not well suited for humans. Security was just the one for us that was so obvious,” Davis said. “Security companies are having to turn away business because they simply cannot staff adequately. They are (barely) minimum wage salaries and you’re asking guards to put themselves at risk. It’s reached the point where the jobs are going unfilled.”
Over at the parking garage for the new PearlWest office space in downtown Boulder, a fully automated parking system designed by Park Plus has customers park and leave their car on what looks like a steel pallet. Robots slide under the pallet and transport the cars to an open parking spot. Humans aren’t allowed in “the vault” for safety reasons, said Matthew Macris, Park Plus’ director of business development. “It shuts down if it detects humans.”
Floor plans of the new PearlWest office building, where one level of parking is fully automated where robots park the cars. Developers were able to squeeze 60 spots in half the space that a traditional lot occupies on another level.
Floor plans of the new PearlWest office building, where one level of parking is fully automated and robots park the cars. Developers were able to squeeze 60 spots in half the space that a traditional lot occupies on another level.
The Boulder garage packs more than 60 spaces on a single level, which reduced building costs since developers didn’t need to excavate another level to meet city parking requirements. If it was a traditional garage, it would need to take up double the space in order to house the same number of cars and make room for people opening doors and walking safely out of the garage.
The number of human jobs replaced by robot parking attendants? Zero, Macris said.
“We’re not taking away jobs because for the most part, (drivers) are parking their own cars,” Macris said. “We’re creating jobs at our factory and here (at headquarters) where we manage the AGVs (automated guided vehicles).”
Amazon makes a case that its robots haven’t reduced the number of humans working for the online retailer. When its new 855,000-square-foot robotics fulfillment center opens in Thornton next year, it will employ 50 percent more workers than the non-robotics one in Aurora, which is 1 million square feet.
“We’re at the point where we’re building Amazon fulfillment centers smaller because we can use the space better,” said Ashley Robinson, an Amazon spokeswoman, adding that the company has 25 robotics fulfillment centers worldwide. “We’re not building those multi-stories with pick pods where we have to build walkways for employees. With robotics, robots come to fulfillment associates. We can store 50 percent more inventory in a (robotics) fulfillment center. And it enables faster fulfillment speed.”
Faster as in minutes compared to hours, she said. Employees no longer walk down lengthy paths to find the products needed to complete orders. They stay at their stations and wait for the robots to drop off items.
“Customers have responded very positively to faster shipping,” she said. “Because of the increase (in shipping speeds), we’re able to create more jobs because we need more people packing orders. Buildings with robotics have the highest counts of fulfillment center workforce.”
Amazon employed 341,400 people at the end of last year and has pledged to hire another 100,000 this year. Job-wise, Amazon is not shrinking staff even though it’s added a lot of robots and automation.
Still, some critics say Amazon has put retail competitors out of business and thus indirectly contributed to mass layoffs of cashiers, store managers and restockers. But the issue has become less about automation displacing human workers. Rather, it’s that wages haven’t grown despite the U.S. experiencing some of the lowest unemployment rates in years, said Ray Hogler, a business professor at Colorado State University who studies technology’s impact on labor.
“Here’s the problem. Middle-class wages have been falling for 20 years.You can see this. Google (economist) ‘Thomas Piketty.’ They talk about the levels of (wage) inequality rising. There’s no likelihood that it’s going to change,” Hogler said. “Technology is going to go where it’s going to go. There’s no way in my opinion to stop development. But what kind of institutional framework is there for dealing with the changes? That’s the big problem. … Is this driving up wages? The answer is not so far, and that’s not good.”
So what to do? Government intervention, because “if the government doesn’t do it, who is,” or unions that “can mediate the impact in a socially acceptable way,” Hogler suggested.
Employers will continue to automate when it’s more efficient and saves money, said Muro, with the Brookings Institution.
“I certainly think the employment impacts really bear watching and they may well be negative, but it is also absolutely true that these technologies create new roles and new jobs and new businesses,” Muro said. “Even with a robotic plant, it hollows out the middle-skills workforce but you create roles for people to manage, maintain and program the automation.”
Indeed. Jesse Gibson, who works with Morty the robotic cart at Cochlear, now focuses on other tasks, which has helped the company grow its orders and consider hiring more workers. And Morty is no longer a novelty.
“You treat it like a person. You see it (coming) around the corner and try to stay out of the way,” said Gibson, “It just becomes normal. I don’t really think about it anymore. But I definitely say hello Morty.”

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