Robot Warehouses Are More Than A Distant Possibility, But What Will Happen To Human Workers?

There was a time when robots were a fantasy for the science-fiction future, featured in far-fetched animated television series and in half-brained presentations of what life would be like in the year 2030. Now, many of us have invited devices that use artificial intelligence into our homes. And soon enough, our nation’s warehouses may rely on robots too. But what will happen to human employees when that change happens?

E-commerce generates $1.2 million every 30 seconds, so it’s no surprise that e-tailers are taking more drastic steps to keep up with the demand. Amazon, one of the most beloved online retailers around, is a proponent of using robots in its warehouses. Instead of having workers lift and stack plastic bins, for instance, the e-tailer uses robots to do the work. But human employees aren’t forgotten; they act, instead, as babysitters who occasionally have to troubleshoot the technology. But many workers actually feel more mentally stimulated by their new role due to its non-repetitive nature. And while the number of U.S. warehouses has increased by 6.8% over the last five years, Amazon itself has to keep hiring entry-level employees to fulfill all those orders from customers.

In fact, Amazon’s global workforce is three times that of Microsoft and 18 times that of Facebook. The company recently announced that it will open a second HQ somewhere in North America, offering 50,000 new jobs to the area.

Amazon is one of the most well-known companies that use robots to help facilitate production, but it can provide several benefits for both workers and customers. Customers can potentially experience faster shipping, higher rates of order accuracy, and greater selection due to increased space within warehouses, while employees no longer have to endure physically taxing work. Often, this translates to greater efficiency overall.

Alibaba Group’s Cainiao, for example, recently launched a warehouse that is home to more than 100 robots. The high-tech fleet makes it possible for the company to offer same-day and next-day delivery to customers in 1,000 different regions in China. Since the warehouse was opened in July, manual worker efficiency has improved by three times. Normally, a warehouse staff worker could sort through an average of 1,500 products in a seven-and-a-half hour shift, taking more than 27,000 steps throughout. But with these mobile robots, the warehouse workers at Cainiao can sort through 3,000 products in a given shift and take only 2,500 or so steps during that time.

Still, some experts say that the robot-human cooperation might be short-lived. John Manners-Bell from Transport Intelligence, a consulting group, told Financial Times that entry-level jobs could be at risk in the near future.

“A lot of these jobs are low-skilled and can be replaced in the near future by automation. Consequently we’re going to see a real root-and-branch change in the way the logistics industry is organised.”

But even though researchers are developing robots that will learn from physical experience — literally self-training robots that will learn through trial and error — these methods are both expensive and extremely time-consuming. For the time being, many humans can rest easy, as their daily responsibilities are not easily replicated by artificial intelligence. However, if humans don’t keep learning and improving, there’s nothing that says robots won’t soon outpace us.

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