Those Speedy Amazon Robots Might Mean Seriously Bad News for Workers

The machines zoom across the company's warehouse floors and have cut down on shipping times, but can they mean a rise in unemployment?
Dec 1, 2014·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Scan a Web page and then click “Buy”—no need to fight for a parking spot at the mall or wait in a long line at the checkout counter. That sort of convenience is one of the biggest appeals of online shopping, and Amazon is undeniably the king of providing easy access to everything from toilet paper to toilets. But how can the company keep up with the number of customers placing orders on Cyber Monday and throughout the holiday season? By unleashing an army of 15,000 robots on the aisles of five of its 10 warehouses.

Yes, instead of sending human employees dashing through its humongous (we’re talking 1 million square feet of space packed with 3.5 million items) order-fulfillment centers, Amazon is using orange, 350-pound Kiva robots to retrieve ordered goods. As you can see in the above video, which the company released on Sunday, the rectangular machines zip to the appropriate multi-shelf bin and then move the entire thing—one robot can move up to 750 pounds—to a station where an employee is waiting to remove an item and prepare it to be boxed up and shipped.

To ensure that the automatons would be working smoothly by the time the holiday shopping season rolled around, the company began implementing the robots in the summer in its California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Washington warehouses. It might take an employee an hour and a half to find an item and get it out the door, but with Kiva machines, a purchase can be shipped in 13 minutes.

Although the increased speed means customers will get their tablets and tubes of toothpaste more quickly, that begs the question: What happens to the employees who used to walk through fulfillment centers in search of those items? David Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president, told NPR that the company isn't laying off people. Instead, it has bolstered its holiday season hiring by 14 percent over 2013 because of increased demand for products from the warehouses. Beyond the holiday season, Clark has asserted that the company will keep hiring people because it is continuing to grow.

However, some economists say that in the long run, adding robots and other computer-based technology to the workforce might lead to unemployment. A paper published in 2013 by economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne has dire predictions. Although Frey and Osborne didn't study Amazon specifically, they believe that about 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at “high risk” of being automated within “a decade or two.”

At particular risk are “service occupations where most U.S. job growth has occurred over the past decades.” Think about the shift to self-checkout at the grocery store or the disappearance of attendants at your nearest parking garage. Machines have replaced the people who used to do those jobs. Unless folks gain "creative and social skills," wrote Frey and Osborne, they are likely to be stuck in increasingly "low-skill low-wage occupations." Also, the two economists wrote, “service robots and the gradual diminishment of the comparative advantages of human labour” mean companies are more likely to go for the cheaper, faster machine alternative.

The addition of the machines hasn't yet meant that the company's human warehouse employees, who sometimes work in sweatshop-like conditions, are obsolete. Right now workers are still being used to tell the Kiva robots what items need to be picked up. Reginald Rosales, who works at the retailer’s fulfillment center in Tracy, Calif., told NPR that he uses a computer to direct the robot's actions.

“We pick the item, we give a six-sided check—make sure it's not damaged—and it [the robot] tells us what bin. And you confirm it," Rosales said.

"As these buildings get more selection, they do more volume," Clark said, adding that more sales volume means more people are needed to assist the robots.

So for now, Rosales’ job—and those of his peers who work in Amazon’s fulfillment centers—is safe. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Andrew McAfee told NPR that we're still a ways away from a workforce of Terminator-style robots. "Robots aren't really, really good at manual dexterity. Their vision systems are often not as good as our vision systems," McAfee said.

That's good news, but you can’t help thinking that a team of engineers is somewhere hard at work, designing a robot that uses artificial intelligence to do what Rosales does. When that happens, sure, we’ll probably get our purchases more quickly. But if workers like him end up unemployed (and potentially unable to get another job) as a result, we'll have to ask ourselves if the final cost is worth it.