Amazon's Dupont, WA fulfillment center (Christina Crea/JBLM PAO/Flickr/PD
Amazon, the automation-loving e-retailer which earlier this month outlined its plan for a cashier-less retail store, says it now has 45,000 robots working across more than 20 of its order-fulfillment centers. That marks a 50 percent increase of its robot workforce from a year ago (when they were deployed at 13 fulfillment centers), to go along with a human workforce of some 200,000 full-time and seasonal staffers over this year’s holiday shopping season. (The robots mostly contribute manual labor, while people still handle the finer-skilled and thinking jobs.) As the Seattle Times points out, Amazon now has a larger army of robots than the Netherlands has people in its actual army, and as Geekwire adds, the ratio of overall robots to people at Amazon has increased by as much as 14 percent, based on the company’s full third-quarter employment figures.
As with the manufacturing sector, the ratio of robot to human workers in American warehouses will undoubtedly shift more and more toward the bots in the coming years, as automation technology continues to provide greater efficiency and cost savings to the companies that can afford to adopt it. A Deutsche Bank analysis over the summer estimated that Amazon, by installing the company’s exclusive floor-patrolling Kiva robots at a fulfillment center, reduces its expenses by $22 million (or 20 percent) per warehouse, and also increases the inventory capacity of Kiva-equipped facilities by a whopping 50 percent.
Meanwhile, other e-commerce giants have been following Amazon’s automation-centric lead, albeit with more limited gains, and new types of warehouse robots are being quickly developed and deployed, as Kim Bhasin and Patrick Clark explored last June for Bloomberg:
The race to develop safe, intelligent, and mass-marketable self-driving cars has sparked a talent war among automotive and tech companies. The competition only stands to get even fiercer, especially now that Uber is launching its first self-driving car service in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bloomberg’s Max Chafkin reports:
Starting later this month, Uber will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars from their phones, crossing an important milestone that no automotive or technology company has yet achieved. Google, widely regarded as the leader in the field, has been testing its fleet for several years, and Tesla Motors offers Autopilot, essentially a souped-up cruise control that drives the car on the highway. Earlier this week, Ford announced plans for an autonomous ride-sharing service. But none of these companies has yet brought a self-driving car-sharing service to market.
Uber’s Pittsburgh fleet, which will be supervised by humans in the driver’s seat for the time being, consists of specially modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles outfitted with dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers. Volvo Cars has so far delivered a handful of vehicles out of a total of 100 due by the end of the year. The two companies signed a pact earlier this year to spend $300 million to develop a fully autonomous car that will be ready for the road by 2021.
The Volvo deal isn’t exclusive; Uber plans to partner with other automakers as it races to recruit more engineers. In July the company reached an agreement to buy Otto, a 91-employee driverless truck startup that was founded earlier this year and includes engineers from a number of high-profile tech companies attempting to bring driverless cars to market, including Google, Apple, and Tesla. Uber declined to disclose the terms of the arrangement, but a person familiar with the deal says that if targets are met, it would be worth 1 percent of Uber’s most recent valuation. That would imply a price of about $680 million. Otto’s current employees will also collectively receive 20 percent of any profits Uber earns from building an autonomous trucking business.
Uber has always been up-front about its goal of eventually using self-driving vehicles instead of human drivers, but it may come as a surprise to see it happening already. The ongoing controversy and litigation over Uber drivers’ status as employees or contractors will be rendered moot if they are ultimately replaced by computers. On the other hand, one expert tells the Associated Press that the Uber probably won’t be able to get rid of human drivers anytime soon, at least not in Pittsburgh:
No, not this type of revolution. (Radoman Durkovic/Shutterstock)
At Fast Company, George Lorenzo interviews Julia Kirby and Thomas Davenport, co-authors of the forthcoming book Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines, about what workers can do to adapt and stay relevant in an increasingly automated work environment:
If history is our guide, job displacement from smart machines jobs simply means that knowledge workers must learn how to adapt, similar to how civilization successfully transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial society. They must learn how to supplement and enhance their skills. In short, knowledge workers need to become augmenters, a scenario in which “humans and computers combine their strengths to achieve more outcomes than either could alone.” That is the key message that comes out of Davenport’s and Kirby’s upcoming book.
A Pew study released on Thursday finds that while most Americans expect robots to take over other people’s jobs in the coming decades, they’re much less likely to anticipate being displaced by automation themselves:
The ultimate extent to which robots and algorithms intrude on the human workforce will depend on a host of factors, but many Americans expect that this shift will become reality over the next half-century. In a national survey by Pew Research Center conducted June 10-July 12, 2015, among 2,001 adults, fully 65% of Americans expect that within 50 years robots and computers will “definitely” or “probably” do much of the work currently done by humans.
Yet even as many Americans expect that machines will take over a great deal of human employment, an even larger share (80%) expect that their own jobs or professions will remain largely unchanged and exist in their current forms 50 years from now. And although 11% of today’s workers are at least somewhat concerned that they might lose their jobs as a result of workforce automation, a larger number are occupied by more immediate worries – such as displacement by lower-paid human workers, broader industry trends or mismanagement by their employers.
The future is a robot’s world, or so we’re told. The World Economic Forum predicts that 5 million jobs will be lost to automation in the next five years, and visionary businesses like Amazon are going all-in on robots to drive down costs and improve speed and efficiency, so if employees are worried about losing their jobs to machines or algorithms, it’s no wonder. In this environment, it’s noteworthy to see an organization doing the opposite and replacing robots with humans, but that’s exactly what’s happening on Mercedes-Benz’s production lines, Elisabeth Behrmann and Christoph Rauwald report at Bloomberg:
“Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today,” Markus Schaefer, the German automaker’s head of production, said at its factory in Sindelfingen, the anchor of the Daimler AG unit’s global manufacturing network. “We’re saving money and safeguarding our future by employing more people.” … The impetus for the shift is versatility. While robots are good at reliably and repeatedly performing defined tasks, they’re not good at adapting. That’s increasingly in demand amid a broader offering of models, each with more and more features.
“The variety is too much to take on for the machines,” said Schaefer, who’s pushing to reduce the hours needed to produce a car to 30 from 61 in 2005. “They can’t work with all the different options and keep pace with changes.”
Talent Daily/John Dory/Shutterstock.com
The World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of economic leaders, tycoons, and celebrities finished up last Saturday in Davos, Switzerland, and the meeting was not short on big ideas about how the world of talent is going to shape up in the near future.
The centerpiece of the discussion was what people are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution (although there’s some debate about whether we are still in the third). The WEF put out a long report with a lot of statistics to help you understand the shift and to scare the world into action—especially with the much-reported statistic that robots are going to steal about 5.1 million jobs by 2020. (You can read the executive summary here—though apparently you must still download PDFs in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.)
The revolution, it is argued, ushers in a blurring of the physical and the digital and, importantly, does so at incredible speed and disruption to business. For Fortune editor Alan Murray, the human element of this change was one of the key takeaways from Davos:
Digital transformation is as much about people as technology. I moderated two private CEO-level discussions focused on the digital transformation of industries, and in both, the human challenges trumped technological ones. Companies struggle to create cultures that can embrace rapid technological change, and governments struggle in response to publics more likely to focus on future risks than future benefits.
CEB data certainly bears this out. For the last year, we’ve been tracking the impact of change at organizations as companies have looked to transform both their HR functions and their workforces to better handle the onslaught of change largely generated by the digital revolution. And as the WEF meeting made clear, change in this new era is very different than in the past.
Amazon’s “Prime Air” service, which CEO Jeff Bezos first revealed the company was working on about two years ago, promises to deliver packages to your door within 30 minutes of your ordering them, using unmanned aerial vehicles—or as they’re better known, drones. On Sunday, the company released a video showing off a prototype of its new hybrid delivery drone, which can fly vertically like a helicopter and horizontally like a plane. The video touts the drone’s safety features, such as sensors that the company claims will avoid collisions with obstacles in the air It’s not clear yet whether these features will convince the Federal Aviation Administration, which, as the Guardian’s Ed Pilkington explains, has balked at allowing commercial drones to fly out of sight of their pilots:
The FAA continues to resist the idea that commercial drones like Amazon Prime Air should be allowed to operate beyond a pilot’s vision. Its draft regulations for commercial drone flights, released in February, do not permit flying beyond line of sight. That is a deal breaker for Amazon, which says that a delivery by drone system could only be feasible if its unmanned vehicles were allowed to operate semi-autonomously, within designated air corridors. Other governments have been notably more receptive to the idea of semi-autonomous drones. The UK’s equivalent of the FAA, the Civil Aviation Authority, has indicated it is open to the idea of delivery drones flying beyond line of sight.
If Amazon Prime Air can clear the regulatory hurdles, it will be a massive disruption to the package delivery business. However, delivery won’t be the only part of Amazon’s business operations where robots give the e-commerce giant a significant technological advantage. Read more