Although the company has deployed more than 200,000 warehouse robots in 50 locations, Amazon has reiterated that the company’s various centres will never reach the point where they could be fully automated.
Amazon’s chief robotics technologist, Tye Brady, explained that the key challenge in regards to workplace automation will not be whether human workers are replaced, but how to design machines which enhance and extend worker capability.
He said: “Not at all. One ounce of my body just does not see that. The way I think about this is a symphony of humans and machines working together – you need both.
“The challenge that we have in front of us is how do we smartly design our machines to extend human capability?”
In an interview at Re:Mars, an Amazon event intended to showcase the firm’s latest advances in machine learning, automation, robotics and space, Brady said the suggestion that robotics and AI would replace humans was a “myth”.
“It’s a reframing of your relationship with machines, right?” he added. “You extend human capability. And when you gain productivity, then you have the ability to create new jobs that were unimaginable five years ago.”
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However, the ‘new’ jobs facilitated by robots have come under harsh criticism. Last November, the UK-based GMB trade union organised a worker strike, as employee conditions at Amazon’s warehouses were deemed “inhuman”.
In a statement last year, GMB General Secretary Tim Roache said: “They are breaking bones, being knocked unconscious and being taken away in ambulances. We’re standing up and saying enough is enough, these are people making Amazon its money. People with kids, homes, bills to pay – they’re not robots.”
In response to the outrage at the time, Amazon responded: “All of our sites are safe places to work and reports to the contrary are simply wrong.”
However, as a result of the mounting pressure, the firm is making improvements. Earlier this year, Amazon increased its minimum wage for warehouse workers to $15 (£12) after considerable pressure from, among others, potential Democratic presidential nominee, Bernie Sanders.
Californian Congressman Ro Khanna introduced legislation that would add an additional tax on corporations if their lowest paid employees had to rely on government programmes, such as food stamps, to make ends meet.
The measure was titled Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies, or Stop BEZOS, for short – aptly named after Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos.
Pegasus is a new robot that is being used in the company’s “sortation centres”. The robot will operate during the last step before a package is handed over to a delivery company.
In a recent blog post, Amazon said: “Resembling an orange nightstand on wheels, the two-feet-high, 3-feet-wide Pegasus drive is Amazon’s newest robot designed to create greater efficiency in its sortation process so customers can receive their orders even faster.”
An accompanying video showed employees placing packages on to the robot, which then carried them to another location ready for delivery.
The system evaluates the most efficient route for the robots to take, while also avoiding the hundreds of other robots moving around simultaneously. A flow control specialist monitors the movements of up to 800 Pegasus robots at the same time.
Amazon has also announced it had made Xanthus, an updated version of its pallet-moving robot which operates in fulfilment centres. To date, the robots have stacked more than 2 billion plastic storage boxes, known as totes.
However, robots still struggle with picking up individual objects of various shapes and standards. This is particularly prevalent in the areas of Amazon’s business that deal with food handling.
This suggests that human workers will still be required despite the advances in robotics. Brady emphasised: “It’s not humans versus machines at all. It’s humans and machines working together to achieve a task.”