In 2019, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos predicted that within the next decade, Robotic systems will be advanced enough to grasp objects as dexterously as a human hand. Now three years on, Amazon appears to be making good progress on that goal.
The company recently released a video in a press release on its Amazon Science website showing a new “grasping” robotic system that may one day replace humans in Amazon’s warehouses to do a lot of work, or at least help Workers eliminate a lot of labor intensity.
In today’s retail and e-commerce world, the topic of warehouse automation is more important than ever. That’s especially true for Amazon, the nation’s largest online retailer and second-largest private-sector employer. Recode reported in June that internal Amazon research predicted that if the company doesn’t push through a series of sweeping changes — including increased automation in warehouses — the company likely won’t be able to hire new workers in the U.S. by 2024.
Meanwhile, the historic victory of the union resolution in the Staten Island vote, coupled with another union election coming up in upstate New York in October, may soon have unionization brewing within Amazon. Labor activists have long argued that Amazon is likely to ramp up automation in response to demands from unions.
In a statement provided by an Amazon spokesperson, Siddhartha Srinivasa, the company’s director of robotics AI, said: “We have a unique opportunity to advance the science of robotic manipulation for the benefit of both employees and customers. Our expertise in robotics and technology This investment is helping Amazon’s jobs become better, easier, and safer, and it will create new career opportunities for employees.”
But the robotic arms discussed here are by no means as fashionable and sci-fi as you might imagine. The current proof-of-concept machines still use off-the-shelf metal grippers and are far from futuristic gripping Robots. But it has been able to pick up a new item every three seconds and place it on the metal guide. Amazon said that at the speed in the video, the robot can grab more than 1,000 items per hour, picking and placing items several times faster than a human worker. Whether it’s a box of crayons, a vial of seasoning powder, or a broom, the robotic arm can easily grab and place without human guidance. The robot “observes” various items in front of it through multiple cameras, and uses machine learning technology to determine the best way to pick up the current item. Another algorithm guides the robot to accurately follow the operation trajectory, and will not collide or damage the goods in crowded scenes. . Preliminary tests also found that the new model handled some specific products with a much lower rate of damage than other manipulators Amazon has tried.
The video, and the robotic system in it, were both tested late last year by Amazon technicians in a controlled lab environment. The prototype robot can only move items weighing less than 2 pounds. According to Amazon spokesman Xavier Van Chau, in this test, the robot needed to handle hundreds of different items within its weight range, and successfully picked up and moved about 95% of the items. Overall, the 2-pound weight limit covers roughly half of Amazon’s products. Of course, the company is still working on a solution to put these items in the shipping box. Maybe the combination of clamp accessories and suction cups in the future, and then targeted training of the AI system, can make the robot understand which “hand” to use to operate which kind of goods.
It’s unclear how long it will be until Amazon develops robots that can handle the vast majority of goods. But most importantly, the core of the question has changed from “if” to “when.” When “when” becomes “now”, the era of automation will officially enter a new stage. At this point, we will also know whether the new generation of warehouse robots can grasp the goods as firmly as humans, and even do the work more beautifully than humans. And the impact of new technologies on these workers and their positions will be revealed at that time.
An Amazon spokesman said the company is confident in the path and believes that the way other types of robots are currently used in warehouses has laid the groundwork for automation upgrades. In June, Amazon unveiled a prototype robotic system called “Cardinal” that can lift and sort already packaged goods. “The ability to lift and flip large/heavy packages or items with complex shapes helps reduce the risk of injury to human workers in confined spaces,” the company claims. Amazon also mentions that the system will be gradually introduced in 2023 each distribution center. Last year, Amazon launched another robotic arm called “Robin”, which is similar in function to Cardinal, but specialized in handling lighter packages. Amazon spokesman Van Chau declined to share details about the deployment of the Cardinal or Robin robots.
Amazon’s history in robotics can be traced back to its $775 million acquisition of Kiva. In the following ten years, Amazon has launched more than 500,000 warehouse roaming robots. During the same period, Amazon also hired more than 1 million workers to demonstrate that it had no intention of phasing out human workers with robotic systems.
In a recent blog post, Amazon said: “Since the beginning of the acquisition of Kiva, we have never been brutally divided between people and technology. Instead, it is most important that people and technology work together safely and harmoniously for Our customers are well served. We still have the same vision.”
The Kiva robot does make a lot of Amazon warehouse work easier and more accessible. For pickers or stackers, these robots deliver racks to their hands at fixed workstations, so workers can stay at their workstations instead of running around. Before the Kiva era, Amazon employees walked 10 to 20 miles a day, constantly putting items on and off shelves.
But the emergence of the Kiva robot has also brought new problems. Before robots became commonplace, a picker’s performance goal might have been 100 items per hour. But after bots were introduced, Amazon doubled down on performance metrics. In order to meet performance requirements, employees are forced to rush to speed and lead to an increase in workplace injury rates.
The tasks Amazon wants its robots to accomplish in testing, such as the “grabbing” robot in the new video, clearly overlap more directly with current employee tasks. The robot acts like an Amazon picker or stacker, picking up items from one location and quickly placing them in another, keeping the items intact throughout. That said, although the robot prototype can complete 1,000 picks per hour, roughly three times the normal speed of a human picker, the two are not yet directly comparable. Human pickers need to pick items from cluttered shelves, sometimes stepping on step stools to get to the top level; stackers place each item into open spaces on mobile shelves . In contrast, the new demonstration robot only needs to take goods from one open space and place them in another open space, which is not at the same level of difficulty. Van Chau, an Amazon spokesman, said the prototype robot in the video has not yet touched a real warehouse or picked items from shelves like human workers.
Still, the new video has caught the attention of robotics experts. Martin Ford, author of several books on robotics including “Rule of the Robots,” said that while it’s unclear how well Amazon’s latest robot prototype will perform in a real warehouse, it appears to show “significant progress.” . With the rapid development of such technologies, many well-funded start-ups are trying to develop robotic systems to solve this relatively delicate grasping operation. “This issue will be resolved eventually, and faster than most people expected,” Ford stressed.
In Ford’s view: “Once that happens, the labor density in Amazon’s warehouses and other similar environments will be greatly reduced.”
Amazon insists that robots will continue to work with human workers in warehouses. However, robotics experts generally believe that one day, the question will be placed in front of various companies: whether to continue to insist on human-machine cooperation in which form is greater than substance, or decisively replace human beings with machines on a large scale.
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