Why I was wrong to be optimistic about robots

Ideas

Why I was wrong to be optimistic about robots

Humans are being crunched into a robot system working at a robot pace

Sarah O'Connor

I used to be a techno-optimist. I thought a fresh wave of automation could liberate us from monotonous or arduous work. Online retail warehouses seemed a perfect example. Here was an expanding sector where low-paid “pickers” had to walk up to 25km a day to collect customer orders from shelves, directed and monitored by wristbands or headsets. I had interviewed warehouse workers who would smear their blistered feet in Vaseline to get through the day. The sooner we invented robots to perform these robot-like jobs, I figured, the sooner humans would be free to do something less grim. But now the robots have arrived, I realise I was wrong.

The surge in demand for online shopping caused by the pandemic has accelerated warehouse automation. Research group Statista predicts the global warehouse automation market will increase from $15bn in 2019 to $30bn by 2026. But robots aren’t replacing the picker job entirely, because human fingers remain better than machines at handling varied objects. “I struggle to find the robot that will be able to handle a bag of plaster of Paris, a bit for a jackhammer, a galvanised steel garbage can, a saw blade and a 20-litre bucket of paint,” one warehouse manager explained to researchers at University of California, Berkeley. Instead, many warehouse jobs are becoming part-human, part-robot. This is transforming the work, not necessarily for the better.

Chuck is an autonomous robot trolley that leads a human picker through a warehouse from one shelf to the next. 6 River Systems, which sells or rents the robots to warehouse operators such as DHL, XPO Logistics and Office Depot, says the technology relieves strain on workers because they no longer have to push a trolley around. But Chuck also sets a relentless pace. “Research shows that when associates pace themselves they slow down,” its website explains. A 6 River Systems “business case” report says workers who set their own pace “travel only half as fast as when they follow Chuck [and] their speed without Chuck also fluctuates wildly”...

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