Amazon may employ robots in warehouses


12 Jan 2012
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Amazon may employ robots in warehouses

Last week Amazon, the online retailer, announced it was buying a robot maker called Kiva Systems for $775 million in cash. Before you get excited that Amazon may start offering a robot that can tuck you into bed at night and read Kindle books to you, this isn't that kind of robot. Instead, Kiva Systems' orange robots move around warehouses and stock shelves.

Or, as the company says on its website, using "hundreds of autonomous mobile robots," Kiva Systems "enables extremely fast cycle times with reduced labor requirements."

In other words, these robots will most likely replace human workers in Amazon's warehouses.

Is this one more step, a quickening step, toward the day when robots put many of us out of work? Most roboticists don't see the coming robot invasion that way.

Michael Kutzer and Christopher Brown, robotics research engineers with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, explained that current robots are being designed to work alongside people, not replace them, in the work force.

For example, the researchers are working on miniature robots just a quarter of an inch wide that could help doctors go inside bone during surgery, and another robot, about the size of a deck of cards, could help in hostage situations by allowing the police to observe a room inconspicuously.

In each instance, humans are still needed to control the robots. The two engineers believe Amazon's new robots will do the same thing: helping speed things up in the warehouses.

Robots have been in factories for decades. But increasingly we will see them out in the open. Already little ones - toys, really - sweep floors. But they are getting better at doing what we do. Soon, if Google's effort's to create driverless cars are successful, cab drivers, cross-country truckers and even ambulance drivers could be out of a job, replaced by a computer in the driver's seat.

We are starting to see robots on the battlefield. We could eventually have robot police officers and firefighters, robotic guides, robot doctors, maybe even robotic journalists.

When I asked Brown if robots would eventually take on a broader role in the workforce and possibly replace workers, he said, "It is much more likely, for now, that robots will help augment people's abilities, allowing us to use robots for things humans can't do." Even if that changes, he added, "you'll have to have someone who builds the robots."

But Brown and Kutzer have advanced degrees in engineering. They will most likely never struggle to find work. The guy in the Amazon warehouse with a year toward an associate's degree at a community college is a different story. It is unlikely that he is going to build robots if he is put out of work.

Yet those who are paving the way for a world with robots don't see it that way. "Those who lose jobs to robots will have an incentive to acquire skills that are currently beyond the skills of robots - and there are many human skills that will not be surpassed soon by robots," explained Colin Allen, co-author of the book "Moral Machines" and a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University.

These experts believe that jobs in creative fields, including musicians, writers and artists, will never be replaced by robots. No matter how smart robots are, they will also never be better than humans at physics or psychology.

Lawrence H. Summers, the economist, former Treasury secretary and former Harvard president, explained that society has been down this road many times before. The rise of the industrial revolution gave way to fears of extensive job loss, as did the automation of agriculture. But, he said, although these "adjustments were in some cases painful," people always found new work.

"There has long been a mentality that we're going to run out of work to do and there is going to be an absence of work for people," Summers said. "Both have been asserted in every generation and always historically been wrong. In reality, if people are freed up from one thing they are able to do something different."

Technology tends to make people optimistic. But are the scientists being realistic about people without the mathematical, scientific and engineering skills that are highly valued and compensated in today's economy? What happens to people without those skills?

If I were a worker in Amazon's warehouses and could eventually be given a pink slip and replaced by an orange robot, I don't think I would be so cheerful about this new workforce.

©2011 The New York Times News Service
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