Amazon Trials Humanoid Robot, Prompting Job Fears

Experiment to automate a couple of Amazon warehouse in the US via the use of robots, has prompted job loss concerns

Amazon continues to experiment with the use of robotics, two developments announced last week in a couple of its warehouses.

The firm announced it had started testing Digit, a two-legged robot that can grasp and lift items at a facility near Seattle, as well as another robotic system called Sequoia that seeks to speed up deliveries at one of its Houston warehouses.

Amazon said it already has over 750,000 robots working collaboratively with our employees, “taking on highly repetitive tasks and freeing employees up to better deliver for our customers.”

Amazon Unsplash
Image credit: Unsplash

Sequoia system

Last October Amazon ended field tests of its Scout delivery robot after about three years, after admitting to Silicon UK that the current iteration of Scout was not “meeting customers’ needs”.

Image credit: Amazon
Image credit: Amazon

But the new robot announcement has prompted concerns about the long term job prospects of the 1.5 million humans worldwide that the e-commerce giant employs.

Amazon firstly detailed a robotic system called Sequoia at one of its fulfilment centres in Houston, Texas.

Sequoia is designed to help identify and store inventory received at its fulfilment centres 75 percent more quickly, Amazon said, and reduce the processing time of orders by as much as 25 percent in order to improve shipping predictability.

Amazon Sequoia.
Image credit Amazon

Sequoia essentially integrates multiple robot systems to containerise Amazon inventory into totes (the blue boxes in picture), bringing together mobile robots, gantry systems, robotic arms, and a new ergonomic employee workstation.

Amazon Sequoia.
Image credit Amazon

The system works by having mobile robots transport containerised inventory directly to a gantry, a tall frame with a platform supporting equipment that can either restock totes or send them to an employee to pick out inventory that customers have ordered.

These totes come to employees at a newly-designed ergonomic workstation that allows them to do all their work in what Amazon calls “their power zone, between mid-thigh and mid-chest height.”

Amazon Sequoia.
Image credit Amazon

With this system, employees will no longer have to regularly reach above their heads or squat down to pick customer orders, supporting our efforts to reduce the risk of injuries, Amazon stated.

Digit robot

The second robotic system Amazon has started testing at its robotics research and development site just south of Seattle is called Digit.

Digit is a mobile two-legged robot that can grasp and lift items. The device is first being used to shift empty tote boxes.

It has been designed by Agility Robotics, one of the companies Amazon invested in as part of the Amazon Industrial Innovation Fund.

Digit is 5ft 9in (175cm) tall and weighs 143lb (65kg). It can carry up to 35lb (16kg).

Amazon said Digit can move, grasp, and handle items in spaces and corners of warehouses in novel ways. Its size and shape is apparently well suited for buildings that are designed for humans, and Amazon believes that there is a big opportunity to scale a mobile manipulator solution, such as Digit, which can work collaboratively with employees.

“Our initial use for this technology will be to help employees with tote recycling, a highly repetitive process of picking up and moving empty totes once inventory has been completely picked out of them,” said Amazon.

A video of the two systems in use can be found here.

“From the hardware to the artificial intelligence embedded in our robotics, we are passionate about technology that makes the work experience of our employees safer, easier, and less repetitive,” said Amazon.

Amazon Digit.
Image credit Amazon

“Doing so gives our employees the time and opportunity to take a step back, look at how orders are moving though our sites, and find new ways to delight and serve our customers.”

Job fears

But the increasing use of robots is prompting fears about job losses going forward.

The Guardian reported that Tye Brady, the chief technologist at Amazon Robotics, claimed that – although it will render some jobs redundant – the deployment of robots would create new ones.

In a briefing at a media event at an Amazon facility on the outskirts of Seattle, Brady told reporters that he wants to “eliminate all the menial, the mundane and the repetitive” tasks inside Amazon’s business.

He denied this would lead to job cuts, however, claiming that it “does not” mean Amazon will require fewer staff.

Insisting that people are “irreplaceable” in the company’s operation, Brady pushed back at the suggestion it could one day have a fully automated warehouse. “There’s not any part of me that thinks that would ever be a reality,” he said. “People are so central to the fulfilment process; the ability to think at a higher level, the ability to diagnose problems.

“We will always need people … I’ve never been around an automated system that works 100 percent of the time. I don’t think you have as well,” he was quoted by the Guardian as saying.