Amazon ups automatization efforts with robots that can do human jobs

Under pressure to cut costs as the pandemic-driven growth in online orders slows, Amazon is increasingly relying on robots to do the job. Sparrow, a complex robotic hand, is the latest addition to its warehouse workforce.

Amazon said Sparrow was its first robotic system that could "detect, select, and handle individual products in our inventory." While an easy task for humans, it was "a major advancement" in industrial robotics, the company noted.

Sparrow could recognize and handle "millions of items" by leveraging computer vision and artificial intelligence, Amazon said. Since acquiring a Boston-based robotics company Kiva Systems in 2012, Amazon has consistently ramped up automatization efforts in its logistics.

The company said that robots handled 75% of the five billion packages it processed last year in at least some delivery stages. There are 520,000 mobile drive robots moving stacks of shelves in its warehouses worldwide, more than double the number in 2019.

"Robotics technology enables us to work smarter, not harder," Amazon said in a statement. The company warned earlier that consumer spending had entered "uncharted waters" as its revenue projections fell short of investor expectations.

Sparrow robotic hand. Image by Amazon

Economic pressures

Amazon is not immune to the atmosphere of doom and gloom that is descending on Big Tech. The e-commerce giant has become the world's first public company to lose $1 trillion in market valuation.

While it is not yet firing thousands of employees as Meta did, it announced a hiring freeze for corporate positions. It also reportedly told employees from unprofitable departments to look for jobs elsewhere in the company.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Alexa is one of its divisions under scrutiny as part of a cost-cutting review led by CEO Andy Jassy. Internal documents seen by the paper show that Amazon's devices unit, which includes the smart speaker, is losing $5 billion a year.

The spending review comes after the rapid expansion during the pandemic saw a surge in online orders and led Amazon to its own shopping spree, striking $10-billion-worth of deals in two years between the end of 2019 and the end of 2021.

While belt-tightening has led Amazon to downsize or close some of its robotics operations, like an experimental autonomous delivery bot Scout it axed last month, the company continues to invest in others.

Following its presentation of the Sparrow, Amazon also announced a preview of MK-30, the latest iteration of its delivery drone. The company said it hoped its drones could deliver half a billion packages per year by the decade's end.

MK-30 drone. Image by Amazon

Safety and replacement concerns

Amazon sought to reassure employees who might be concerned robotic solutions would replace them. It said that the introduction of robots had created over 700 new categories of jobs for workers to transition to once some of their tasks become automated.

It also said that robotic systems like Sparrow would "take on repetitive tasks, enabling our employees to focus their time and energy on other things." When Amazon announced its new fully autonomous warehouse robot Proteus earlier this year, it said the machine should release employees of some manual tasks to "focus on more rewarding work."

In both cases, it stressed that innovations underway would advance workspace safety, highlighting another area of concern that comes with automation. At least one study shows that Amazon fulfillment centers using robots had 50% more injuries than those without.

The company treads carefully so as not to alienate the human workforce it still needs. To hold off acute labor shortages, Amazon had to reverse some of its more rigid rules in locations across the US.

It is workforce automation that will likely be a long-term solution to both labor and economic pressures. Robots do not complain, after all, and they are not seeking to form unions, which the company fiercely opposes.

Robots can also work without breaks – unlike some Amazon drivers who reportedly had to urinate in bottles to manage notoriously high workloads.

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