Source : Wired
Robots Won’t Close the Warehouse Worker Gap Anytime Soon
This July, Amazon showed off several new warehouse robots with names borrowed from Sesame Street that are, presumably, meant to evoke childhood wonder rather than futuristic dread.
…The new machines demonstrate the potential for automation to creep into more areas of warehouse and package-sorting work, a critical part of the economy as ecommerce orders soar. Competitors like Walmart and FedEx are also rushing to adopt robots. It might seem that machines are poised to take over in warehouses—and help make up for a dire shortage of human workers.
The transportation and warehousing industries had a record 490,000 job openings in the US in July 2021, a shortfall that will be felt especially during the ordering and fulfillment crunch of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
But not so fast. A rush to adopt more automation does not mean that artificial intelligence and robots will solve the worker shortage.
Amazon’s prototype robots are not yet capable of doing the most challenging, and important, work inside its fulfillment centers: picking the many products stored on its shelves. They’re simply not smart enough.
…The new mobile robots can navigate around human workers, for instance.But the machines only automate work that requires limited intelligence, like avoiding obstacles or lifting heavy totes from a limited number of shelves. Amazon’s new robot arm, Ernie, will still need to be fenced off from human workers to avoid accidentally hurting them.
The role of robots across the economy is undoubtedly changing. For many years, robot jobs were limited to industries where labor-intensive, dangerous, and precisely repeated tasks were suitable for automation. The most significant adoption is in automotive manufacturing, where roughly 38 percent of all industrial robots are found.
…AI holds significant promise for making robots far more capable. Instead of blindly following a routine, an AI-enabled machine can perceive, learn what’s in front of it, and try to respond intelligently. Someday, intelligent robots may intuitively be able to pick up an unfamiliar object or solve a problem without human help.Warehouses in particular are seeing an unprecedented rise in automation, says Matt Beane, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara, who studies adoption and use of advanced robots. Worldwide unit sales of “professional service robots” increased 41 percent during 2020, according to recent data from the International Federation of Robotics, while money spent in that category increased 14 percent—implying that the technology is steadily becoming cheaper. Sales of robot arms alone in the US were up 37 percent year-over-year in the first nine months of 2021, according to the Association for Advancing Automation, with warehouse deliveries now rivaling auto manufacturing.
But Beane also notes that the vast majority of this increase involves technology that has been around for decades, like simple sorting systems or dumb industrial robots, like Amazon’s current fleet, that follow repetive actions without adapting.
Only a small proportion of deployments use real AI, such as robots that reason about how to grasp an unfamiliar object, Beane says. For now, he says, robots can pick a limited range of items from a bin or a conveyor or navigate around buildings, but they cannot step in for people doing complex manipulation and tend to fail when faced with problems.
“I am not aware of a single person that has lost their job because of some AI-enabled robot,” he says. “That’s not to say it hasn’t happened, but it’s just far too rare and far too experimental.”