Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Robots and People

While fears that robots will replace human workers haven’t come to fruition, there are growing concerns that keeping up with the pace of the latest artificial intelligence technology is taking a toll on human workers’ health, safety and morale.

Warehouses powered by robotics and AI software are leading to human burnout by adding more work and upping the pressure on workers to speed up their performance, says Beth Gutelius, who studies urban economic development at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has interviewed warehouse operators around the US.

It’s not that workers aren’t getting trained on how to work with robots safely. “The problem is it becomes very difficult to do so when the productivity standards are set so high,” she says. Gutelius says that the aspiration for symphonic human-machine operations is not always working out in practice. “It sounds quite lovely, but I rarely hear from a worker’s perspective that that’s what it feels like,” she says. Gutelius co-authored a report published this fall that found new warehouse technology could contribute to wage stagnation, higher turnover and poorer quality work experiences because of the way AI software can monitor and micro-manage workers’ behaviours.
Much of the boom in warehouse robotics has its roots in Amazon’s $775m (£591m) purchase of Massachusetts start-up Kiva Systems in 2012. The tech giant rebranded it as Amazon Robotics and transformed it into an in-house laboratory that for seven years has been designing and building Amazon’s robot armada.

Amazon’s Kiva purchase “set the tone for all the other retailers to stand up and pay attention”, says Jim Liefer, CEO of San Francisco start-up Kindred AI, which makes an artificially intelligent robotic arm that grasps and sorts items for retailers such as The Gap.
A rush of venture capital and private sector investment in warehouse robotics spiked to $1.5bn (£1.1bn) a year in 2015 and has remained high ever since, says Rian Whitton, a robotics analyst at ABI Research.

Canadian e-commerce company Shopify spent $450m (£343m) this fall to buy Massachusetts-based start-up 6 River Systems, which makes an autonomous cart nicknamed Chuck that can follow workers around a warehouse. Other mobile robot startups are partnering with delivery giants such as FedEx and DHL or retailers such as Walmart.
Amazon this year bought another warehouse robotics start-up, Colorado-based Canvas Technology, which builds wheeled robots guided by computer vision. Such robots would be more fully autonomous than Amazon’s current fleet of caged-off vehicles, which have to follow bar codes and previously mapped routes within warehouses.

The tech giant is also still rolling out new models descended from the Kiva line, including the Pegasus, a squarish vehicle with a conveyor belt on top that can be found working the early-morning shift at a warehouse in the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear, Arizona. A crisscrossing fleet of robots carries packaged items across the floor and drops them into chutes based on the zip code of their final destination.
A recent journalistic investigation of injury rates at Amazon warehouses from The Centre for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal found that robotic warehouses reported more injuries than those without. Reveal looked at records from 28 Amazon warehouses in 16 states and found that the overall rate of serious injuries was more than double the warehousing industry average. Amazon has countered it is misleading to compare its rate with rivals because of the company’s “aggressive stance on recording injuries no matter how big or small”. The Reveal report also found a correlation between robots and safety problems, such as in Tracy, California, where the serious injury rate nearly quadrupled in the four years after robots were introduced.

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