The future of Amazon’s logistics but it’s an open question at what point AI-powered machines will do a vast majority of the work. According to Scott Anderson, the company’s manager of fulfillment, the point at which an Amazon warehouse is entirely, end-to-end automated is at least 10 years away. Anderson’s comments, reported today by Reuters, highlight the current rate of automation, even in environments that are ripe for robotic labour, like an Amazon warehouse.
As it stands today, robots in the workforce are proficient at specific, repeatable tasks for which they’re precisely programmed. To get the robot to do something else takes time-consuming reprogramming. And robots that operate and can perform tasks are in the realm of experimental and research trials. Even the process of picking this up without having never noticed that thing before and identifying an item requires a collection of sophisticated hardware and software that does not yet exist in commercial style.
Are still largely stuck in the realm of AI research
So while a robot can help produce a microchip and the body of a Tesla motor car, it’s not capable of performing tasks that are human that warehouse function requires. At Amazon facilities and other companies’ fulfillment centers, a bulk of the labour is still largely done by human hands, because it’s difficult to train robots to find the world and use robotic grippers with the dexterity of human employees.
However, as part of the deep learning revolution rsquo;s accelerated the progress of AI research robots are beginning to gain levels of vision and motor control which are approaching human-levels of elegance. Amazon is one of the companies pioneering such robots, and it’s held an annual so-called picking challenge, after the warehouse term from picking up one thing to move it to another part of the logistics chain, to promote advances in the field.
A number of different companies and research labs have been making progress on that front, too. UC Berkeley has a robotics lab that’s made considerable progress in the field, and its new low-cost robot, a pair of humanoid arms controlled by a central system named Blue, can perform complex manual tasks like the folding of a towel due to an AI-powered vision system. Research lab OpenAI has similarly been using an AI training technique called reinforcement learning how to instruct a robotic hand more precise and refined movements, the forms of movement that would be required of a robot to replicate a human in a warehouse. Kindred, a San Francisco-based startup, produces a robotic arm named Kindred Sort it’s deployed in warehouses for the retailer Gap which uses a mix of human piloting and automation to do dynamic product picking.
Image: UC Berkeley
Blue is capable of complex tasks like folding a towel.
According to Reuters, Amazon has 110 warehouses in the US, 45 centers, and approximately 50 delivery channels, all of which use more than warehouse employees. But robots perform only a fraction of that work. Robots are too imprecise and awkward and require much training to be deployed on factory floors outside use cases that are very narrow.
For instance, Amazon utilizes little, Roomba-shaped robots simply called “drives” mostly to deliver massive stacks of products to human employees, by subsequent set paths around the warehouse. “In the current form, the technology is limited. The technology is far from the fully workstation that we would desire,” Anderson told Reuters, which toured an Amazon warehouse in Baltimore today.
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