Amazon is entering the age of robots. What does this mean for its workers?

Tcrammed into a metal cage in a corner of a 350,000 sq ft Amazon warehouse outside Boston last week was a lone yellow robotic arm sorting through packages, preparing goods to be shipped out to customers who demand ever-faster delivery. Soon it will be joined by others in a development that could mean the end of thousands of jobs and, Amazon claims, the creation of thousands more.

As the robot worked, a screen showed its progress. It carefully packed a tub of protein powder, then came a box of napkin rings, and then… a tube of hemorrhoid cream. As 100 journalists from around the world took pictures, someone changed the screen to hide the cream.

One day soon, the robot, called Sparrow, could do the work for the 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 is damaged and discard it, and adjust its suction cup “hand” to handle different items — all jobs currently performed by human hands. As it learns, it gets better every day.

Sparrow, which is expected to begin rolling out next year, was just one of the new army of robots shown off for the first time at Amazon’s “Delivering the Future” conference Thursday. Other innovations included an autonomous green robot called Proteus – a giant Roomba lookalike that can move heavy loads around cavernous warehouses. The company also showed off its latest drone, which it hopes will enable the company to deliver 500 million packages by air by the end of the decade. Another corner of Amazon’s BOS27 warehouse had been outfitted with fake grass, fake house fronts complete with welcome mats and a giant electric delivery truck equipped with technology to inform drivers of the best routes and provide “coaching” for better driving. Behind a white picket fence, a drone sat on the lawn, an image of how Amazon believes millions of its customers will one day receive their orders.

Amazon workers outside with drones behind them.
Amazon hopes drones will deliver 500 million packages by air by the end of the decade. Photo: Amazon

The 2020s will be “the age of applied robotics,” said Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics. “Robots will do meaningful tasks and expand human capabilities. I feel like it’s taken 50 years to get here. It’s exciting!”

In recent years, Amazon has become one of the world’s largest private employers, with a payroll of more than 1.6 million in 2021. That growth has not been without pain. Amazon is fighting tooth and nail to stop U.S. warehouse workers outraged by low wages and relentless pressure to form unions, and Wall Street has been critical of its perceived over-hiring. Robot packers, robot movers and robot deliveries can be an answer to these problems.

Brady disagrees. People have been predicting that robots will destroy the job market for decades. As far back as 1933, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that widespread technological unemployment would come “due to our discovery of ways of economizing the use of labor in excess of the rate at which we can find new uses for labor.”

“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 created more than a million jobs.” More robots will increase efficiency in warehouses, meaning they can store more goods, Amazon will sell more things and more people will be needed to make sure everything runs smoothly, he said.

“The need for people to solve problems and use common sense will always be there,” he said. “We’re nowhere near that with robotics. It’s not even close. We have millions of years of evolution for the human brain powered by 20 watts and a banana, it’s incredible.”

Yellow robot arm putting a package in a box.
The Sparrow robotic arm will be rolled out next year. Photo: Amazon

Brady may be right about the job number. A recent report from the US government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics said there was “little support” for the idea that the new era of smart machines would lead to job destruction. Economists even have a term for it – the “lump of labor” error. Innovation can destroy occupations but there is no fixed number of jobs and new ones take their place. Warehouse jobs, for example, replaced retail jobs as online shopping decimated malls.

But all this change is not necessarily good for workers. In an article for the University of Berkley’s Labor Center, Beth Gutelius and Nik Theodore also concluded that technological innovations in warehouses are unlikely to cost significant job losses. But, they argued, employers “can use technology in ways that reduce job skill requirements to reduce training times and turnover costs. This can create negative effects on workers, such as wage stagnation and job insecurity.”

Such arguments are unlikely to slow Amazon’s robot revolution. The company is the largest manufacturer of industrial robots in the world. Its facilities in Boston already produce 330,000 robots a year. And all to ensure an ever faster delivery of toothpaste – or hemorrhoid cream. And that’s what people want, Brady said: “We’re going to be responsive 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 faster,” he said.

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