Amazon Enlists Researchers to Build Box-Packing Robots
Joshua Brustein for Bloomberg: Â Sixteen teamsÂ ofÂ robotics researchersÂ are traveling to Japan this weekÂ to help Amazon.com Inc. solve its warehouse problem. The company has aÂ fleet of robots that drive around its facilitiesÂ gathering items for orders. But it needs humans for the last stepÂ â€” picking up items of various shapes, then packing the right ones into the correct boxes for shipping. Itâ€™s a classic example of an activity thatâ€™s simple, almost mindless, forÂ humans, but still unattainableÂ for robots. Starting Thursday, the company is running theÂ Amazon Robotics Challenge, the third annualÂ contest for robots that push those limits.Â
Both academic and commercialÂ roboticists have been putting a lot of energy intoÂ solvingÂ whatâ€™s sometimes referred to as theÂ â€śpickingâ€ť challenge, and Amazon is trying to direct that energy towards its specific needs. In one part of the contest, teams fill aÂ shelfÂ with aÂ random assortment of itemsÂ that Amazon providesÂ â€”Â a champagne glass, a roll of duct tape, scissors, a childrenâ€™s book entitledÂ â€śRobots, Robots Everywhereâ€ťÂ â€” and their robots pull out specific items, packing them into boxes that represent pretend Amazon orders. InÂ another, robots confront a jumble of items, and pack them onto shelves that resemble those in Amazon warehouses, remembering where each one went. Thereâ€™s about $250,000 of prize money at stake, including $80,000 for the top prize.Â
Amazon gets nothing out of this, directly. But their own robotics team can potentially pick up techniques, or even new colleagues -- it has hired people who have entered past contests. More broadly, having robots that could reliably carry out the tasks from the challengeÂ on their own would be a big stepÂ towardsÂ fully autonomous warehouses, which theoretically could run faster,Â cheaper, and around the clock.
This raises uncomfortable questions aboutÂ the future prospects for warehouse workers. In May, thereÂ wereÂ 949,000 people working inÂ theÂ warehouseÂ and storageÂ industry in the U.S., making an average wage of just under $20 an hour,Â according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of people working in the warehouse industry has grown 43 percent overÂ theÂ last decade, and wages have kept pace with inflation, even as a first wave of automation has taken place. Optimists argue that more automation leads to more growth, creating better jobs elsewhere. Pessimists are basically predicting that artificial intelligence will usher in an economic apocalypse. Â Full Article:
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