More companies employing robots to do work that humans once did

Global Business

Holiday shopping, the busiest season, has just ended in the United States, and sales have shown that online purchases are playing a greater role. To keep up with demand, online retail giant Amazon is enlisting help from a fleet of warehouse robots named Kiva. However some worry that the quest to speed up deliveries may come at a cost. CCTV America’s Mark Niu reported this story from San Jose, California.

More companies employing robots to do work that humans once did

Holiday shopping, the busiest season, has just ended in the United States, and sales have shown that online purchases are playing a greater role. To keep up with demand, online retail giant Amazon is enlisting help from a fleet of warehouse robots named Kiva. However some worry that the quest to speed up deliveries may come at a cost. CCTV America’s Mark Niu reported this story from San Jose, California.

At ten Amazon fulfillment centers across America, 15,000 robots scoot across the floor in perfect unison, locating and transporting heavy loads of goods and preparing them for delivery.

Professor Ken Goldberg of the University of California at Berkeley said the Kiva robots have impressed everyone in the field of robotics, but it’s unclear whether they’re good for workers.

“It’s naive to presume that workers are not going to be affected. [They] Certainly will. And I think it’s something we have to be really conscious of. One of the ideas though is that it’s also creating jobs, because of the volume of this, the amount of all of it cannot be automated,” Goldberg said.

If there’s any place that’s a good fit for automation, it’s the post office. At the U.S> mail processing center in San Jose, it’s already happening.

More than 31,000 pieces of mail come through the Automatic Facer Cancellation System each hour. The machine can actually read the handwriting on the letter and slap a bar code on it. Seventeen people used to have to do this job, but now it only requires two: One person to dump the mail in, and one to take it out.

Similar automation systems work to sort magazines and parcels too.

Since automation was introduced, the U.S. postal work force was reduced from roughly 800,000 to 500,000 employees. But the U.S. postal service proudly said it’s never laid any one off because it retrains people to do different jobs and doesn’t replace staff who retire.

But the question remains whether the the use of robots that can move heavier objects without taking breaks or requiring benefits will harm current employees.

“It’s a little ballet,” Jerry Michalski, founder of the think tank Relationship Economy eXpedition

Michalski said he’s comforted by the fact that people still play a role in packing and checking boxes, but he questions whether automation will soon take over those packing jobs and keep moving up the chain.

Michalski said many tech companies view humans as a temporary inconvenience. He cites Amazon’s experimentation with drones for delivery, Google’s use of self-driving cars to eliminate transport services, and the already-on the-market robot Baxter robot that can be trained to pick up and move different objects.

“The problem is that people inventing automation right now… don’t necessarily know that they are facing important moral choices as they do this. They don’t necessarily think about how many people they may be putting out of work but on the whole, this is just a race to the finish line to see who automates best,” Michalski said.