Sep 4, 2019
With Amazon retraining their employees at the cost of $700 million, almost one-third of the company’s U.S. operators will become accustomed to larger tech-intensive duties. This work—one of the most historically persuasive on Amazon’s part—sets the scene for the organization to discern whether its established purpose of abandoning its human workforce in favor of smart robots is moving forward.
The tech giant has cast no illusions of its passion to go fully mechanical: It’s been funding automation technology for years. In 2017, Amazon had over 100,000 robots “working” in warehouses around the globe, and just lately, news surfaced that it has started substituting human packers with so-called carton-wrap robots in some repositories. So it came as a bit of a shock earlier this month when the business said that complete automation is at least ten years from happening. During a tour of a Baltimore fulfillment hub, Scott Anderson, director of Amazon Robotics Fulfillment, told journalists that the modern “limited technology” is no match for human cognitive understanding. For now, Amazon's workforce will engage alongside the automata, which—surprisingly—work only a fraction of jobs, mostly restricted to moving big stacks of goods in the warehouses. They utterly lack the higher-order cognitive skills, like utilizing insight and making choices, that are needed for a more accurate, nuanced job. Amazon’s announcement might serve as a signal to other firms that singularly prioritize mechanization over human operators. In reality, the perils of doing this are frequently far too large. Automation is most useful when it is created with human users in mind. In 1961, operators at a General Motors plant began serving alongside the first automated robot. Called Unimate, the 4,000-pound arm was a “cobot” that welded and die-cast car parts alongside its human equivalents. More than half a century later, Unimate continues the standard for how humans and robots synchronize on the facility floor. The reason? Automation operates safest when it is designed to enhance humans’ abilities. This philosophy is what is referred to as human-centered automation and reduces the dull, tedious or hazardous jobs humans had before been asked to do. While humans keep a pivotal role in the workplace, automation can run in the backdrop, helping operators along the way. Today, recent versions of Unimate are popping up in production and non-manufacturing circumstances alike. Boutique producers—like Brooklyn’s Lowercase, a business that produces eyeglasses in-house--are looking into automation answers that perform repeated assignments with more accuracy than people. Similarly, Salesforce’s CRM software can now automatically post hundreds of perfectly timed follow-up messages on behalf of a busy sales rep, and chatbots on e-commerce sites immediately reply to general consumer inquiries. These duties are well-suited for technology because they are monotonous and need little interpretation or creativity. However, they still require arbitration from humans who have the critical-thinking skills to manage more complicated circumstances. Just as we would never hand our email correspondence entirely off to an automated application, we can’t rely on automation to operate aircraft or do quality assurance on complicated auto parts. Robots simply aren't as skilled at managing the unexpected or adapting to new conditions as humans.
Lawrence Whittle | Sep 09, 2019 - With Amazon retraining its workforce to the tune of $700 million, nearly a third of the company’s U.S. workers will become accustomed to more tech-intensive responsibilities. This effort—one of the most historically forceful on Amazon’s part—sets the stage for the company to figure out whether its stated mission of ditching its own human workforce in favor of smart robots is a go.
The tech behemoth has made no secret of its desire to go fully automated: It’s been investing in automation technology for years. In 2017, Amazon had over 100,000 robots “working” in warehouses around the world, and just recently, news surfaced that it has started replacing human packers with so-called CartonWrap robots in some warehouses.
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