Amazon, robots, and diverging views of automation and the way forward for work

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Tye Brady, Amazon Robotics chief technologist, with Digit, a bipedal warehouse robot developed by Agility Robotics, a company in which Amazon has invested; and a new Amazon warehouse robot, Proteus, lower right, that can navigate a warehouse floor alongside humans. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

LAS VEGAS — What happens to jobs, the economy and business when a company can create the perfect worker out of silicon and steel? Amazon’s new warehouse robots, unveiled this week, could have lasting implications for the company and its workforce at a pivotal moment for technology and the labor movement.

In addition to developing and deploying its own fleet of robots, Amazon is keeping an eye on technology that’s further out on the horizon, as demonstrated by its investment in Agility Robotics, maker of a bipedal warehouse robot called Digit. (Amazon hasn’t yet signaled any plans to use Digit in its own operations.)

Amazon says it sees immense long-term benefits for worker safety, productivity and efficiency, with robots ultimately helping humans do better and more fulfilling work, not taking their jobs. The company points to the fact that it has hired a million people in the past decade, more than twice the number of robots in its operations.

“We build our machines so that humans are at the center of the robotics universe,” said Tye Brady, chief technologist for Amazon Robotics, unveiling the new robots on stage in Las Vegas this week at re:MARS, an Amazon conference focusing on machine learning, automation, robotics and space.

He added, “At the highest level, the very highest level, we aim to extend human capability and build collaboration between people and machines.”

Others see it from a different perspective. Philip Su, a former Microsoft and Facebook software engineering leader who worked the peak season last year inside an Amazon warehouse, welcomes the safety improvements promised by the new robots, and feels empathy for the union movement based on his experience.

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However, he says, it’s hard to overlook the pragmatic implications.

“The higher the standards and protection that unions or other facilities provide workers, the higher the motivation for a company like Amazon to quickly invest in and deploy these sorts of labor-removing technologies,” Su said.

On this episode of the GeekWire Podcast, recorded on location at Amazon re:MARS in Las Vegas, we sit down with Amazon’s Tye Brady to talk about the new robots. Then we jump on the line to reconnect with recent GeekWire Podcast guest Philip Su to get his take on all of this after he watched Brady’s presentation.

  • Hear more about Philip Su’s experience in his 15-episode podcast series, Peak Salvation, and in our prior GeekWire Podcast conversation, published June 11.
  • Watch Amazon Robotics chief technologist Tye Brady’s re:MARS keynote here, and see our coverage of Amazon’s new robots, including videos.

Listen above, or subscribe to GeekWire in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen.

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