Last week, I wrote about Amazon’s use of Kiva robots in its warehouses to dramatically speed warehouse operations. This past weekend, Amazon gave tours of its Tracy, California warehouse so media could see those activities.

 

The robots, and there are more than 15,000 of them companywide, are part of Amazon’s high-tech strategy to fill orders quicker and deliver them to customers sooner. The robots lift shelves of Amazon products off the ground and then deliver them to employee workstations, which eliminates the need for warehouse workers to walk around looking for items. Consequently, employees at some robot-equipped warehouses are now expected to pick and scan at least 300 items an hour, compared with 100 items per hour under the old system.

 

But as a recent article in the LA Times points out, a rapidly growing army of robots at the country’s largest e-commerce retailer would seem to foreshadow eventual trouble for many of the thousands of employees at Amazon’s 109 warehouses. Amazon’s moves to revolutionize operations could also have implications industrywide if smaller companies feel forced to similarly adapt to compete.

 

“Real-life workers are going to have less to do,” says Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, in the LA Times article. “It’s obvious that humans are going to lose these jobs. There will be exactly the same impact on retail as robots have had on manufacturing.”

 

During a tour of Amazon’s Tracy fulfillment center last Sunday, the company sought to dispel worries about the rise in automation.

 

“We continue to add employees, and no employee has been negatively impacted by Kiva coming on board,” says Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations and customer service, in the LA Times article. “When you look around at Kiva, there are still a lot of people working. What we’ve done is automate the walking element. Our focus on automation is to do automation that helps employees do their job in an easier way, in a more efficient manner.”

 

That may be true for now, but Amazon’s robots clearly are doing tasks humans would otherwise do, which over time would seem to lead to a need for fewer lower-wage workers. However, because robots can’t replicate everything humans do, such as being able to identify the exact product a customer has ordered and check it for quality, legions of employees will still be needed—and those jobs will be higher-paid positions, as the LA Times article notes. Furthermore, although robots will complete the labor-intensive tasks, skilled workers will increasingly be needed to operate, maintain and program the fleet of robots.

 

Also this week, Stephen Hawking—noted theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author of A Brief History of Time—expressed concern about artificial intelligence (AI) and said in a BBC News interview that efforts to create thinking machines pose a threat to humans’ existence. He went so far as to say that the development of full AI “could spell the end of the human race.”

 

Hawking said that while the primitive forms of AI developed so far have already proved very useful, he fears the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans.

 

“It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” Hawking said in the BBC interview. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

 

From self-driving cars to smartphones with autocorrect and other intelligent assistant capabilities, there’s no doubt increasingly sophisticated automation is part of our lives. What’s more, as leading companies such as Google spend millions to acquire AI and robotics startups, AI will assuredly play a larger role in our lives, both personally and professionally.

 

It would seem first steps would be to use computational power to replace jobs that rely on pattern recognition, data gathering and distillation, and computational algorithms. Perhaps jobs in transportation/logistics and some production labor could be next.

 

What are your thoughts on the increasing use of robotics and AI? Will they eliminate jobs completed by humans or perhaps lead to the creation of new jobs?