The fear of robots taking over human jobs is real, and possibly justified. But Amazon has just announced that this is not true in their warehouses. “Our experience has been these new technologies actually create jobs, they allow us to grow and expand,” a spokesperson told the BBC. “And we’ve seen multiple examples of this through the robots that we have today.”
The impetus for the statement was Amazon’s new initiative, using the humanoid robot Digit in its warehouses.
Amazon explained that Digit would be “freeing employees up to better deliver for our customers”.
Automation is good for people
Robots can take over jobs. But that’s not always a bad thing. When automation takes on jobs that are dirty, dangerous, and dull, human workers can move on to more interesting — more human — work. Warehouse work is often dirty, dangerous, and dull. It can require fast, repetitive motions, and human bodies aren’t designed for that kind of movement. The result can be musculoskeletal injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, and falls.
Amazon has in fact seen an increase in injuries since they’ve been automating their warehouses. One theory is that collaborative work between robots and humans allows increased speed. That can reduce costs, so Amazon will naturally want it. But it can also push human beings past what they can safely do.
It’s worth noting that this is not a problem with automation. It’s a problem with the human beings who decide to speed up the process. There are no robots standing around making snarky comment about how slow their human coworkers are, pressuring people to work faster.
Another spokesman told The Guardian that the goal is to “eliminate all the menial, the mundane and the repetitive.” Who can object to that?
A philosophical question?
Businesses have a duty to their stakeholders to cut costa and increase profits. This is going to be the main point of any efforts at automation. If a corporation assured us that their main goal in increasing automation is to increase the happiness of their workers by giving them more satisfying jobs to do, we would be skeptical. That can be a positive side effect, though.
And increasing productivity can, for the right kind of business, lead to more jobs for humans. Ideally, the company can become more productive and more profitable, keeping its human workforce and sizing up with automation.
Will that happen at Amazon? They say that’s the plan.