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In the Media

article imageOp-Ed: Robots to run Amazon warehouses – Robots vs. jobs debate revives

By Paul Wallis
Mar 25, 2012 in Technology
Sydney - The robots are coming! Pity the thinking isn’t keeping up with them. Amazon has bought Kiva Systems, a company that makes warehouse robots. The purchase has suddenly reawakened “robot-phobia”, the wider issue of robots replacing humans in jobs.
The New York Times-
Before you get excited that Amazon may offer a robot that can tuck you into bed at night and read Kindle books to you, this isn’t that kind of robot company. Instead, Kiva Systems’ orange robots are designed to move around warehouses and stock shelves.
Or, as the company says on its Web site, using “hundreds of autonomous mobile robots,” Kiva Systems “enables extremely fast cycle times with reduced labor requirements.”
In other words, these robots will most likely replace human workers in Amazon’s warehouses.
“..most likely replace” just means that someone at NYT hasn’t been keeping up with the actual development of warehousing systems. Auto picker machines have been around for a while now in warehousing, virtual robots in all but name working in environments where humans can’t function- The fully automated warehouses aren’t really designed for humans and forklifts any more.
What’s new about the little orange robots is that they’re different, freestanding units, hence the use of the word “autonomous”. They’re apparently pretty productive, and Kiva Systems is also working on medical and law-enforcement related surveillance robots.
The NYT article goes on to develop the theme of robots in the workplace. This hugely important subject, almost hilariously, has been submerged by the realities of robotics- The more the robots evolve, the less that’s actually said about them. When Isaac Asimov wrote “I Robot” 50-60 years ago, the argument was much more articulate and better developed.
Years ago, robots were usually the bad guys in science fiction, taking jobs away from humans and enforcing a mindless society of machine law. Asimov was the first to create a positive robot image, and the Three Laws of Robotics for autonomous, self-aware robots. Technology has been struggling to actually produce a robot of this type, but the “dumb” modern robots are pretty much ubiquitous now as assembly line machines, and the new generation of robots is stylized to specific tasks.
China is acquiring robots to build things like iPhones, a move apparently designed to deal with the labor crises at manufacturing plants, but also including managing the brutal physical realities of high volume assembly work. Auto manufacturing is largely robot-based. The fact is robots are already here, have already taken human jobs and the new emphasis for manufacturing is obviously robot-oriented, if not entirely robot-based.
Robots vs. creativity?
The NYT bravely tries to tackle the subject of robots replacing humans-
“Those who lose jobs to robots will have an incentive to acquire skills that are currently beyond the skills of robots — and there are many human skills that will not be surpassed soon by robots,” explained Colin Allen, co-author of the book “Moral Machines” and a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University.
These experts believe that jobs in creative fields, including musicians, writers and artists, will never be replaced by robots. No matter how smart robots are, they will also never be better than humans at physics or psychology.
Don’t be so sure about that. A robot doesn’t even have to be a physical machine. It can be operating software, just as easily. All a “robot” really needs to do is be functional. I just bought some software that made a piece of music out of a patch I created. It wasn’t much of a piece of music, but it had form and phrasing of a sort. All I did was hit “Create MIDI object” on a menu, and it did, creating a new piece of music. I had to listen to it twice to decide whether I liked it or not. (I wasn’t that impressed, but it definitely had a stab at making a working piece out of the patch and came up with a reasonable amateur level result.)
As for writing, a lot of technical writers wouldn’t be too sad to see a machine manage the heavy duty, grinder stuff on manuals and similar works of functionally inspired “art”. Many pro writers would say that some of the bestsellers could have, and probably should have, been written by machines, because these turgid, repetitive embarrassments aren’t doing a lot for the idea of literature and things that are actually worth reading. Claiming that they’re written by human beings is a sort of devaluation of literature.
The robot argument, like most modern arguments about technology, is generally created and developed by people who haven’t seen the original arguments. The modern version, as usual, gets sidetracked by passing technical developments, and if it ever looks at the big picture, is myopic at best. Long term visions are practically non-existent.
The “argument” is about the benefits vs. the negatives. This is an almost exact replay of the Industrial Revolution arguments against Spinning Jennies in the cotton mills in England, and about as articulate.
The argument goes like this-
1. Machines take jobs- Bad
2. Machines free up humans from drudgery- Good
3. Machines more productive- Good
4. Machines put people out of work- Bad
Then there are the really advanced arguments, worthy of comatose house bricks-
1. Machines aren’t humans- You don’t say? Try telling that to job designers.
2. Humans aren’t machines- Tell that to the techno-worshippers, who expect more than machines can deliver.
3. Humanity is superior to machines- That’s why billions of people watch manufactured products like reality TV.
4. Machines dumb and soulless, humans smart and soulful- Sure, they are. Just watch Wall Street and the central banks, and you can see exactly how smart and soulful humans are.
Even the word robot comes from ancient Greece. It means “worker”. This is a 2000+ year old argument, and it’s gone nowhere since Asimov.
There’s one more mindset that really exposes the perceptions of people as robots-
“There has long been a mentality that we’re going to run out of work to do and there is going to be an absence of work for people,” Mr. Summers (economist, former Treasury secretary and former Harvard president) said. “Both have been asserted in every generation and always historically been wrong. In reality, if people are freed up from one thing they are able to do something different.”
So, from this “something for people to do” perspective, “work” is the driving force for human life? There’ll be 10 billion humans on Earth in 2050, and they’ll all be wondering what to do with themselves? Presumably saying “what is the meaning of life” and other noble things?
This is what happens when “thought leaders” pretend to think- They translate very ordinary ideas into non-ideas. They also instantly downgrade the actual value of any human being- the ability to be a human being.
For those wondering what humans who aren’t nailed to “work” can do-
The people that developed fire, the wheel and agriculture presumably weren’t “working”- They weren’t out “earning an honest living” hunting and gathering. They also permanently changed the entire state of human life in the process.
Current technology wasn’t really envisaged by people doing 9 to 5 jobs, even as “thought leaders”. All of the sciences, which are driving progress, have had their practical applications developed by people not “working” or trying to reduce their workloads. Where one biological test was done 50 years ago, thousands are done now. Technology and its effects are the result of experimentation, not “work”.
Robots will allow people to think and be people, not pseudo-machines doing mindless, badly organized work to earn "a living" which delivers such useful achievements as the Working Poor. Humanity doesn’t need “something to do” and a rationale for doing it. It needs results. That’s what the robots can deliver.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Asimov, three laws of robotics, automation vs jobs, Luddites, Medical robots
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