Over the weekend, Amazon – a company that employs more than 50,000 people in its warehouses alone – organized a contest where engineering teams from all over the world were invited to present a robot that can fulfill simple warehouse duties. Though some of the bots were quite impressive, all of them failed miserably at some point, even at a task so simple as grabbing an item from a shelf and placing it in a tub. It’s not that they couldn’t do this, rather they were so slow and clumsy that any warehouse worker witnessing the display might think he’s a superhero and his job is safer than the pope in the Vatican. Well, that may be true … but who knows for how long. After all, any repetitive task can be automated, eventually.

amazon robot warehouse

GIF: YouTube

As for Amazon, representatives at the company claim their intention wasn’t to suggest they want to replace human workers with robots. Instead, they suggest robots will be complementary to the human workforce, which is still irreplaceable.

 “We already have over 15,000 robots in our fulfillment centers working alongside our employees,” a spokesperson told MIT Technology Review. “These technologies enhance jobs for employees, making them in many cases more efficient. Certainly the role for employees is still vital.”

For the competition, each team had to design, assemble and program a robot that had to pluck various items from a genuine Amazon inventory shelf, then place them on a nearby table for shipping. Among the items were a box of Oreos, tennis balls, a pencil cup, a rubber ducky or books. Judges awarded points whenever a robot made a successful picking, but deducted points when an item was dropped or poorly picked. Each robot had to pickup as many items in 20 minutes; a task that any human could have finished in under 3 minutes.

However, even some of the simplest items (rubber ducky?) gave the robots a hard time. For instance, the team at University of Tokyo made a system based on the Rethink Robotics’s Baxter. To pick up items, the robot built in Japan uses suction to pick up items from the shelf.  In the end, the vacuum  robot completed the test, but with only one collected item.

Kiva Systems’ orange robots are designed to move around warehouses and stock shelves. The company was bought by Amazon in 2012 for $775 million in cash. Current robots are being designed to work alongside people, not replace them, in the work force. Image: Bloomberg

Kiva Systems’ orange robots are designed to move around warehouses and stock shelves. The company was bought by Amazon in 2012 for $775 million in cash. Current robots are being designed to work alongside people, not replace them, in the work force. Image: Bloomberg

The robot challenge was dominated by the team  from the Technical University of Berlin, which snagged the top $20,000 prize by successfully picking and packing 10 out of 12 items during its 20-minute test. The German team employed a combination of sensors to interpret what the objects in the shelf were and snag them in good time. For instance, one sensor would recognize the object, another would determine the base’s position in relation to the shelf and a third one to make sure the arm didn’t exert too much force when handling items.

Check out the video below to see them warehouse bots in action. Even at 4x, they performed pathetically slow.

So, for a long time from now, warehouse workers shouldn’t worry their jobs will be replaced by robots. But shouldn’t they consider it nonetheless? I mean, I think we can all agree it’s just a matter of time until the technology is mature enough for robots to be feasible at the workplace, and I don’t mean the warehouse necessarily. It’s almost any type of work. So, do you drive a school bus? There’s self-driving cars for that. Bank teller? A more flexible ATM. Call center operator? Well, you already know how that goes, deep learning software and all. Experts seem to agree that a third of all jobs today will be replaced by robots by 2030. How will society re-purpose itself in the face of such a dramatic transition might be one of the greatest challenges it has to face in the future. Until then, you better start earning a new degree or practice a skill set that a robot won’t ever be good at. Be creative, be inspiring, don’t be a robot.

 

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