Amazon’s robots give peek into future

Miniature machines, run by humans, do one day’s work in one hour

A worker tests robotic and vision systems at an Amazon fulfillment centre in Sacramento, California.
A worker tests robotic and vision systems at an Amazon fulfillment centre in Sacramento, California.
Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Hundreds of orange robots zoom and whiz back and forth like miniature bumper cars – but instead of colliding, they’re following a carefully plotted path to transport thousands of items ordered from online giant Amazon.

A young woman fitted out in a red safety vest, with pouches full of sensors and radio transmitters on her belt and a tablet in hand, moves through their complicated choreography.

This robot ballet takes place at the new Amazon order fulfillment centre that opened on Staten Island in New York in September.

In an 80,000m² space filled with the whirring sounds of machinery, the Seattle-based ecommerce titan has deployed some of the most advanced instruments in the rapidly growing field of robots capable of collaborating with humans.

The hi-tech vest, worn at Amazon warehouses since 2018, is key to the whole operation – it allows 21-year-old Deasahni Bernard to safely enter the robot area, to pick up an object that has fallen off its automated host, for example, or check if a battery needs replacing.

Bernard only has to press a button and the robots stop or slow or readjust their dance to accommodate her.

Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centres, which Amazon Robotics chief technologist Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates.

“What used to take more than a day now takes less than an hour,” he said, explaining they are able to fit about 40% more goods inside the same footprint.

For some, these fulfillment centres, which have helped cement Amazon’s dominant position in global online sales, are a perfect illustration of the looming risk of humans being pushed out of certain business equations in favour of artificial intelligence.

But Brady argues that robothuman collaboration at the Staten Island facility, which employs more than 2,000 people, has given them a beautiful edge over the competition.

What role do Amazon employees play in what Brady calls the human-robot symphony?

In Staten Island, on top of tech-vest wearers like Bernard, there are stowers, pickers and packers who respectively load up products, match up products meant for the same customers and build shipping boxes – all with the help of screens and scanners.

At every stage, the goal is to extend people’s capabilities so the humans can focus on problem-solving and intervene if necessary, according to Brady.

At the age of 51, he has worked with robotics for 33 years, previously as a spacecraft engineer for MIT and on lunar landing systems of the Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts.

He is convinced the use of collaborative robots is the key to future human productivity – and job growth.

Since Amazon went all-in on robotics with the 2012 acquisition of logistics robotmaker Kiva, gains have been indisputable, Brady says.

They have created 300,000 new jobs, bringing the total number of worldwide Amazon employees up to 645,000, not counting seasonal jobs.

“It’s a myth that robotics and automation kills jobs, it’s just a myth,” according to Brady.

However, many suspect Amazon’s investment in robotics centres aims to eventually automate positions currently held by people.