New robot moves Amazon towards increased warehouse automation
Last week Amazon introduced Sparrow, its first robotic system that can identify, select and manage millions of individual warehouse inventory items. Sparrow is also said to reduce repetitive tasks and improve worker safety.
Utilizing a combination of AI, computer vision, and a suction-cup “hand,” Sparrow is reportedly able to handling roughly 65 percent of all pre-packaged products available on Amazon’s website, according to the company’s own description. “Working with employees, Sparrow can take on repetitive tasks, which allows our employees to concentrate their time and energy on other areas, while also improving safety,” according to the official press release ,. The company also calls the new system “a major technological advance to support our employees .”
[Related: Four workers die in Amazon warehouses across 22 days. ]
As Business Insider reports, however, some workers are worried about their employer’s true motives behind Sparrow’s impending rollout. “[It] is going to take my job,” a warehouse worker told Business Insider. He chose not to be identified for fear of company retaliation.
Amazon first introduced robots into its workforce in 2012, and has since deployed 520,000 robotic drive units globally capable of a variety of warehouse tasks. Sparrow will join the company’s previously announced Robin and Cardinal systems, both of which are meant to streamline and speed up warehouse tasks while supposedly freeing human laborers of mundane, repetitive, and often potentially dangerous responsibilities.
“Earth’s Best Employer” has a well-documented history of controversy. For example their on-the-job injury and fatality rates far surpass industry averages, and workforce turnover is so high that the company may “run out of prospective workers” in the US by 2024, according to one report. Sparrow’s imminent rollout, according to the company, will reduce the chance of warehouse workers being injured while maintaining Amazon’s productivity goals. However, some workers fear that this could only worsen the existing problems. They want you to compete against the robots. They want all employees to compete with them. But who can win against a robot?” Mohamed Mire Mohamed, a former Amazon employee and current labor organizer, told Business Insider.
While Amazon claims its expensive interest in robotics will ultimately be a net positive for employees, critics argue the reality will be far more automation at the expense of actual human positions within the company. “Instead of providing high-quality jobs and addressing the safety crisis it has created in its warehouses and on our roads, Amazon is investing in ways to maximize profits to the detriment of working people,” a spokesperson for Athena Coalition, a grassroots coalition focused on Amazon, said in a statement provided to PopSci. “If Amazon were concerned with keeping workers safe, they would stop union-busting, pay livable wages, and end the invasive surveillance and punitive management practices that are the real cause of the corporation’s safety crisis.”
Earlier this morning, The New York Times also revealed that Amazon is planning on cutting an estimated 10,000 jobs from its overall workforce, primarily within its “devices organization… as well as at its retail division and in human resources.” With over 1.5 million employees across the globe, the layoffs would represent roughly less than 1 percent of its overall workforce.
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