There is little doubt that Amazon operates some of the most technologically advanced warehouses in the world. As of the end of 2016, the Seattle Times noted that the company 'employed' roughly 45,000 robots spread across 20 fulfillment centers around the country.
As can be seen in the video below, the KIVA robots, a company which Amazon bought for $775 million in 2012, move product bins around the company's massive warehouses with relative ease. The bins are delivered by the KIVA robots on a just in time basis to human 'pickers' who grab whatever products are needed and finish the packing process before boxes are shipped off to customers.
But while they've seemingly mastered the art of moving bins around a warehouse floor with, for all essential purposes, miniature robotic forklifts, a solution to automating the simple task of picking individual items out of those bins has remained elusive. And, with 1,000's of very expensive, sickly and generally needy humans currently fulfilling that task, you can bet Amazon is eagerly pursuing that solution with some level of urgency.
In fact, just this weekend, Amazon will be hosting a robotics competition with 16 teams from around the world who will get a chance to show off their robotic "picking" technology for the chance to win a share of $250,000 in prize money. Per Bloomberg:
Sixteen teams of robotics researchers are traveling to Japan this week to help Amazon.com Inc. solve its warehouse problem. The company has a fleet of robots that drive around its facilities gathering items for orders. But it needs humans for the last step — picking up items of various shapes, then packing the right ones into the correct boxes for shipping. It’s a classic example of an activity that’s simple, almost mindless, for humans, but still unattainable for robots. Starting Thursday, the company is running the Amazon Robotics Challenge, the third annual contest for robots that push those limits.
Both academic and commercial roboticists have been putting a lot of energy into solving what’s sometimes referred to as the “picking” challenge, and Amazon is trying to direct that energy towards its specific needs. In one part of the contest, teams fill a shelf with a random assortment of items that Amazon provides — a champagne glass, a roll of duct tape, scissors, a children’s book entitled “Robots, Robots Everywhere” — and their robots pull out specific items, packing them into boxes that represent pretend Amazon orders. In another, robots confront a jumble of items, and pack them onto shelves that resemble those in Amazon warehouses, remembering where each one went. There’s about $250,000 of prize money at stake, including $80,000 for the top prize.
Of course, for a company that spent $775 million on KIVA, $250,000 in prize money is just a drop in the bucket if it helps them to identify a grad student who could potentially solve their 'picking' problem.
Startups privately grumble that Amazon is using the contest to outsource development on the cheap. In a market where Google paid a single engineer $120 million to help develop automated vehicles, $250,000 for any usable information on automated warehouse robots basically rounds down to zero. Laboring -- even indirectly -- below the market rate for one of the world’s most valuable companies, they say, is insane.
Startups like Right Hand Robotics and Universal Logic claim that their systems are far more sophisticated than what has come out of Amazon’s challenge so far. Yaro Tenzer, a co-founder of Right Hand Robotics, is in Japan for RoboCup 2017, the conference where Amazon's contest takes place. He says he may recruit participants, but sees little reason to show off his company's techniques publicly. "The value for us is staying ahead of everyone else," he said.
So why do it? Some participants in Amazon's contest, who are mostly grad students and academics, are looking for jobs. And while there have been complaints about Amazon’s stinginess, the rewards this year are about three times as high as past prizes. Ashley Robinson, a spokeswoman for Amazon, says the company raised the prize levels because the contest is harder than it used to be.
Just another 230,000 people who are about to suffer the very real world consequences of Bernie's "Fight for $15."