Caught On Tape: How The Robots Are Taking Over Amazon

Tyler Durden's picture

Over the past few years, as Amazon's distribution network has grown at a near-exponential pace, so has its workforce. As the chart below shows, starting in 2010 and continuing through the third quarter, Amazon has seen a staggering increase in its mostly part-time employment: from 28,300 to over 306,000.

However, always seeking ways to cut a few basis points from its razor thin retail margins, Jeff Bezos has discovered that many, if not all, of these part-time laborers, minimum wage as they may be, are expendable, and the company is actively growing its robotic "workforce" in preparation for the moment when most of those 300,000+ workers become fully redundant.

As the Seattle Times reports, Amazon now has some 45,000 robots across 20 fulfillment centers. That’s a bigger headcount than the armed forces of the Netherlands. It’s also a 50% increase from last year’s holiday season, when the company had 30,000 robots working alongside 230,000 humans. For now, the growth rate is keeping pace with that of human additions: from Q4 of 2015 through Q3 of 2016, Amazon reported a 46%, 12-month increase on average in staffers. However, as the pace of carbon-based employment eventually plateaus, that of new robot recruits will only continue to rise.

As the Times notes, the surge in Amazon’s robots showcases the company’s love for automation. In 2012 the company bought Kiva Systems, a Boston-area robotics firm that invented the flat, toaster-like warehouse robots that now populate Amazon’s warehouses. There are also other kinds of automata, such as arms that carry pallets.

For now, the 300K+ workers are mostly safe as much of the stowing and picking of items, which require fine motor skills and discernment, is done by human brains and hands. That is changing, however, as robots become increasingly more sophisticated.

“We’ve changed, again, the automation, the size, the scale many times, and we continue to learn and grow there,” Amazon Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky said of the robots in a conference call last April. The executive said he couldn’t point to any “general trends” in the adoption of robotics, because some fulfillment centers are clearly “fully outfitted” in robots and “some don’t for economic reasons — maybe the volume’s not perfect for robot volume.” However, as minimum wages continue creeping higher, the "economic reasons" to boost robotic volumes will dominate, and most if not all fulfillment centers will become "fully outfitted."

Of course, warehouse automation is just a part of Amazon's grand vision of maximizing logistical and supply-chain efficiencies, as well as eventually doing away with bothersome paychecks for employees. Several weeks ago, Amazon announced that it had made its first automated drone delivery in the UK. More recently, the company obtained a patent for an "airborne fulfillment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery", i.e., a giant flying drone mothership zeppelin warehouse. 

By now, it is becoming clear that Bezos will not stop until Amazon is one giant, automated, and fully self-contained system, along the lines of the following video showcasing how early-generation Kiva robots have already displaced thousands of human workers.  Within a few years, expect all of Amazon's warehouses to look virtually the same.

 

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Raffie's picture

Robots taking over!!

major major major major's picture

Hopefully taking over con-gress soon

Draybin Deffercon III's picture
Draybin Deffercon III (not verified) major major major major Jan 3, 2017 6:47 PM

OMG! Rob0ts we loves you!!

Say What Again's picture

Over the weekend I was doing a google search for a certain jazz group from the 70s.  When I opened my email today, I discovered that Amazon had sent me an offer to buy a number of CDs / MP3s for the very same obscure band.  Coincidence?

DetectiveStern's picture

I've heard of people discussing films and stuff with mates then adverts appearing for what was discussed come up on their Facebook, web browsing etc. They listen to everything said (near a smart device) and track everything you search. It's scary, very scary.

SofaPapa's picture

Two words:

Cheap energy.

A major interruption in energy distribution (a guaranteed event at an undetermined point in our future) is going to bring this trend to a screaming halt...

SofaPapa's picture

Hi... my name is Papa and I am an ellipses addict...

[Hi Papa]

etc.

Poundsand's picture

Fulfillment Center?  Looks like mind blowingly boring and unfulfilling work to me.

Semi-employed White Guy's picture

That's why robots should be doing it.  I've worked an assembly line. It is mind blowingly boring. Worse than that it is mental torture for anyone with an above room temp. IQ.

general ambivalent's picture

Yep, probably why massive wars begin to look desirable over the years.

effendi's picture

I have a Mensa level IQ, after a stint of unemployment I welcomed working on a line and really enjoyed that I was making far more (lots of overtime at penalty rates) than when I was a lab tech at a prestigious research facility (that never paid for our overtime). When the choice is between no work/no money and boring work/with money  then most people will take the job.

Mareka's picture

Automated fulfillment picking and packing orders has been around for decades. It's better work for machines than for humans and frees people to do more profitable work.

We are adding automation to take over the work of at least 70 employees this year but nobody will be out of a job.
We do it to be more competitive.
These jobs are more secure as a result of automation.

Huckleberry Pie's picture

That humanoid has a nice arse.

HowdyDoody's picture

Amazon doesn't make a profit. Everything is for tax purposes. These are probably more expensive than humans, and serve as a greater tax write off.

general ambivalent's picture

Nah, Tesla will produce strong drones. Save the environment and accidentally burn any fake books at the same time.

Say What Again's picture

Yes, I've worked on systems that do the profiling of customers via social media.  A good place to start to learn about this stuff by doing a google search for "decahose"

awakeRewe's picture

This has been happening with me when when I discuss things with my wife. Were both getting freaked out!

yrat's picture

few years back, painting a room with the lady in newly moved-into house, listening to pandora via phone in the corner.  after a few songs, a commerical played for behr interior paint (happened to be the brand we had just purchased).  you can imagine the look on both our faces as we quickly met eyes.... neary threw the damn phone out the window.

LowerSlowerDelaware_LSD's picture
LowerSlowerDelaware_LSD (not verified) yrat Jan 3, 2017 11:48 PM

Yeah, delete Pandora.  Let them know that you don't want them snooping on you.

Cognitive Dissonance's picture

Big Brother....Robot is watching you. But all it wants to do is sell you beads and baubles. You'd better fucking buy if you know what's good for you.

HowdyDoody's picture

Next in line - robo repo men - no wait ...

toady's picture

The wife thinks it's wonderful to say "okay Google" and then ask any question she wants. ...

I just keep telling her I don't talk to machines....

I'm starting to feel like Winston. 

Heterodox economics's picture

Not a coincidence.  Google and other internet  companies sell information about you.  Thats how they make money.

The alterntiave is for Google, Facebook, Yahoo et al to charge for the use of their services.

 

 

Holy hand grenade of Antioch's picture
Holy hand grenade of Antioch (not verified) Draybin Deffercon III Jan 3, 2017 6:56 PM

fonestar ~ I actually can't wait for the robots to self realize & proceed to take over BITCOIN...

 

That'll be the 'unintended consequences' black swan for all you dweebs that got stuffed into a locker one too many times in high school.

Draybin Deffercon III's picture
Draybin Deffercon III (not verified) Holy hand grenade of Antioch Jan 3, 2017 7:11 PM

Hey moron... Bitcoin is now only $100 behind the price of gold! Everyone here is cheering for Bitcoin to roast gold and leave it in the ANALS of history.

Here's a little script we are going to run on the history books when finished:

sed -i 's/gold/bitcoin/g' worldhistory

Holy hand grenade of Antioch's picture
Holy hand grenade of Antioch (not verified) Draybin Deffercon III Jan 3, 2017 7:13 PM

According to Mark T. Williams, as of 2014, bitcoin has volatility seven times greater than gold, eight times greater than the S&P 500, and eighteen times greater than the U.S. dollar.[164]

Attempting to explain the high volatility, a group of Japanese scholars stated that there is no stabilization mechanism.[165] The Bitcoin Foundation contends that high volatility is due to insufficient liquidity,[166] while a Forbes journalist claims that it is related to the uncertainty of its long-term value,[167] and the high volatility of a startup currency makes sense, "because people are still experimenting with the currency to figure out how useful it is."[168]

There are uses where volatility does not matter, such as online gambling, tipping, and international remittances

asierguti's picture

And I know a guy who bought BTC in 2013 at 800 dollars cause he didn't want to miss the boat, and sold it at 400 dollars to "cut losses".

 

Phillip Fisher said "The market is full of people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing". So, bitcoin is over 1000 dollar, but how much is it worth? That is the first question I ask myself when I invest in any security.

Draybin Deffercon III's picture
Draybin Deffercon III (not verified) asierguti Jan 3, 2017 7:25 PM

Well if your guy would have hung in there he would be up 25% today. Ultimately 1 BTC will buy you stacks of 1oz gold coins.

Holy hand grenade of Antioch's picture
Holy hand grenade of Antioch (not verified) Draybin Deffercon III Jan 3, 2017 7:47 PM

...& there you go again

 

fonestar... CAPITALIST, tax evading 'day trader' (who fancies himself as a libertarian anarchist)...

Say What Again's picture

Like I said earlier today.  The biggest threat to American jobs is automation.

asierguti's picture

The human civilization is based on automation. We use tractors, cars, internet, phones, etc.

 

So, instead of just resisting the change, why not adapt yourself and embrace it?

 

Remember, your salary is a function of what you bring to your work place. If you are too expensive and a machine can do the same job cheaper, eventually you will be replaced. But, like with the advent of the internet, there are hundreds of thousands of new jobs being created. Be smart and adapt to the new reality, cause there are a lot of opportunities as well.

Say What Again's picture

I work in the area of Data Science, so I understand a bit about embracing the change that comes with computers and AI.  Bottom Line is this.  Most american jobs will be lost to automation. 

asierguti's picture

What you say sound similar to what I heard in many developing countries: do not reduce the bureaucracy, cause it will result in job losses. The result is an extremely inneficient system.

 

If you don't automate, the chinese will do it, or somebody else, which will be able to sell their products cheaper. Then, what? Tariffs to artifically increase their prices in America? So the poor paying more.

Say What Again's picture

All corporations in every country are racing to employ automation in their business processes.  They must do so just to compete.  Even service professions like the legal professionals are facing stiff competition from automation that can scan legal documents faster than any person.  This is a serious problems for workers from the bottom of the scale up to higher levels.  The executives love this stuff.

asierguti's picture

And it has always been like this. Nothing new. What do you think people thought about machines in the XIX century? Still, people survived. Every time there is a major technological shift, the economy needs to rebalance, people reshuffle, need to be trained again, etc. But again, this is nothing new, this has happened many many times in the past.

 

By the way, automation and robotics is nothing new. 50 years ago there were no computers in offices, 30 years ago employees didn't have internet and e-mail and just 15 years ago there were no smartphones. 100 years ago there were no robots building cars.

 

Regarding lawyers, you can scan documents very fast, and a computer can advice you on something. However, I guarantee you that if you are in trouble and need legal advice, you will talk to a lawyer face to face, you won't accept an advice from a machine. If you work in data science (I'm a computer scientist as well), you know the limits of IA and its judgement.

Say What Again's picture

I think we are making similar points, but there are a few things different right now.  We are reaching a point where many manufacturing processes can be performed via automation, many logistics processes (warehousing, transportation, etc) can be performed by automation, etc.  There will always be a minority of people that know how to make a living in this environment.  But there are going to be a large number of good people that will be out of work simply because they don't have the expertise to work in the new world.  Corporations won't hire these people just to be nice.  They will be out of work, and on some form of welfare.

LowerSlowerDelaware_LSD's picture
LowerSlowerDelaware_LSD (not verified) Say What Again Jan 4, 2017 12:05 AM

Then those people need to learn how to garden, raise chickens, goats, and cows, and maintain their own place.  Welfare must be from neighbors, churches, and charities.  Not government that thrives on an ever expanding welfare state.

HowdyDoody's picture

The ever expanding welfare state? You mean corporate subsidies, the Big Brother Surveillance Complex, and the MICC? Oh look, man selling a loosie!

 

LowerSlowerDelaware_LSD's picture
LowerSlowerDelaware_LSD (not verified) HowdyDoody Jan 4, 2017 10:29 AM

Absolutely!  Yes, the MIC takes just under 20% of the federal budget and more or less zero from state and local budgets.  Cut it! 

Wealth transfers from producers to non-producers takes up about 6% of the federal budget and large portions of state and local budgets.  There is a LOT more room to cut so cut it as well!  Government employees should not be paid a massive, $100K, plus, pension by cutting my pay - forcibly taking my retirement savings from me.  They can save for retirement the same way I have to.

Semi-employed White Guy's picture

Yes, the economy will adjust and new jobs will be created. But that doesn't mean the number of new jobs will offset the number lost to automation. And more than likely the new jobs will require higher IQs on average.  And while you and I may only accept legal advice from a human, the next generation may not be so narrow-minded.  The loss of jobs due to automation will be a significant problem for the coming decades. I have no solution and I haven't heard of one from anyone else.

general ambivalent's picture

Perhaps people have survived up until this point. But how many working horse breeds remain? And how many people even know how to cobble shoes, let alone have the skills to carry out the tasks?

The greatest skill a lot of people have now is deciding between barbecue chips or salt and vinegar. You can imagine what communities full of people like this start to look like.

I work in big construction projects and have noticed more skilled people having to take on the unskilled jobs. There also seems to be a link between these people and how much they depend on painkillers to get through the day. It can lead to a terrible work environment when you have to worry about injury due to these addicts running around. Anecdotal evidence, but I'd bet it's a common experience for other workers today.

The transient nature of this type of work means that the family will be destroyed even further.

Nexus789's picture

The idea that new jobs are created may have been true in the past.  I doubt that is the case now. 

Elco the Constitutionalist's picture
Elco the Constitutionalist (not verified) asierguti Jan 3, 2017 7:36 PM

Do you believe in perpetual motion machines, too? You fucking moron.

Holy hand grenade of Antioch's picture
Holy hand grenade of Antioch (not verified) Say What Again Jan 3, 2017 6:53 PM

The biggest threat to 'American jobs' is jews (until the very moment that the MACHINES become self aware and figure out that the world is controlled by jews)... There, fixed it.

 

Only then will the LUNACY of the past 300 years come full circle...

Say What Again's picture

Don't you hate how the Rothschild group are taking over the world?

Holy hand grenade of Antioch's picture
Holy hand grenade of Antioch (not verified) Say What Again Jan 3, 2017 7:50 PM

yes ~ (any other stupid questions?, such as 'You've, like, only been on here for, like, 11 weeks, right?')

Say What Again's picture

Yes, one more question

why did you have to get a new user-id?

Did you get kicked off the site?

What was you user-id before HHG?

DetectiveStern's picture

Mo' cash fo the elite. Welfare debt slavery for the masses. Everything is working out as planned.

Say What Again's picture

I agree.  The Rothschild group plans are starting to come to fruition.