A few years ago, the world was bracing itself for a new wave of automation. Robots, we were told, were going to replace workers in warehouses and totally change how the whole system operates.
We saw all sorts of interesting-looking concepts, including those that look scarily familiar to humans.
Could humanity really have advanced to the point where robots became possible?
The bulls – people who believe that we’re headed for a robots takeover – place their faith in existing developments. We’ve already seen machines do package-sorting work in demonstrations. And companies like Walmart and FedEx are rushing to deck out their distribution centers with the latest technologies.
However, experts caution that the current drush to adopt further automation doesn’t necessarily mean bad news for workers. There’s already a shortage, and it’s not clear whether robots will make it any better.
Robots Are Getting Smarter
For years, robots just blindly obeyed the instructions programmers typed into their software. They didn’t have the capacity to learn, much less reason.
However, that’s starting to change a little. Robots are moving out of automotive manufacturing and going into new areas, including startups, which was virtually unheard of before 2015.
The reason for this shift comes down to AI. Machine learning means that human programmers no longer have to painstakingly enter code to get robots to behave how they want them to. Instead, robots can largely figure it out themselves, as long as they have an objective function.
Robots Are Getting Cheaper
At the same time, the economics of robots are also improving. The cost of key components such as chips, servos, and batteries are all in rapid decline. The price of a brand new robot on the production line today is already less than half of the cost of 2010, and prices seem like they may fall even further.
The Problem With Robots
Despite the advances in robotics, it doesn’t seem like they are going to close the labor gap anytime soon. Currently, it’s hard to imagine that any workers will lose their jobs to automation. In fact, increasing use of robots could help them get more done, increasing their pay.
For instance, robots need to learn the warehouse racking system first before they can begin picking and stacking. Training them to do this, though, is notoriously difficult because of the lack of a clear objective function. Organization is different from maximization.
What’s more, the current use of real AI in commercial warehouses is still rather limited. The technology exists on the test bench at universities and in major tech companies, but even powerhouses, such as Amazon, still aren’t using it at scale.
The real driver of automation in warehouses is actually being done by Amazon’s competitors. These outfits are looking for ways to undercut the giant, and the best way to do that is to reduce their expenses with robots. Getting rid of labor could dramatically cut the prices that consumers face.
Unfortunately, though, these projects aren’t going as planned. Most companies don’t have anything close to an automated warehouse – far from it.