Innovation Through Collaboration: Robots Edition

Companies are preparing for a chain reaction in (human) job growth and robots are the catalysts. 

By Xische Editorial, July 22, 2019

Source: Songv/ Shutterstock

Source: Songv/Shutterstock

In our brave new world where robotics is transforming the nature of employment, can robots and humans get along? Many commentators are critical and cautious of advancements in robotics. They fear robots will replace humans in millions of jobs around the world. The people who rely on these jobs will be left out on the street, they argue. But this take ignores the reality of robotics and misses the obvious opportunity robots present for the global workforce. 

Let’s start with the basics: robots will create more jobs than they’ll replace. Moreover, the jobs they replace aren’t particularly helpful to humans in the first place. If you work in a meat processing factory, for example, and a robot can take over the back-breaking work of moving animal carcasses, that is a good thing. The worker will feel better and the company will spend less on health-related coverage for their employees. The crux here is finding jobs for the workers who are freed from tough manual labour. Recent developments at Amazon highlight the myriad paths employers can take. 

The company recently announced a plan to “upskill” roughly 100,000 employees to prepare them for the impact of technology and automation on their jobs. The nearly $1bn plan will affect one-third of Amazon’s US workforce and focus on training employees in data mapping, data science, and other professions related to advanced robotics.  

As a technology company, Amazon is a global leader in automation, with a global workforce three times larger than Microsoft and 18 times larger than Facebook. According to the company, 300,000 full-time jobs have been added globally since Amazon introduced robots into the workforce in 2012. By upskilling its workers, Amazon is preparing to add more jobs and more robots because, as the company notes, it will need to hire more people to help sustain the increased productivity levels thanks to robotics. It is a chain reaction of job growth and robots are the catalysts. 

The New York Times reports that Amazon is also investing in its own robotic infrastructure. In 2014, the Times reports, “the company began rolling out robots to its warehouses using machines originally developed by Kiva Systems, a company Amazon bought for $775 million two years earlier and renamed Amazon Robotics. Amazon now has more than 100,000 robots in action around the world, and it has plans to add many more to the mix.”

Underlying this employment shift is the notion of innovation through collaboration. Robots do not simply have to take over human jobs and replicate the marketplace as it exists today. By working together to streamline productivity, humans and robots can innovate new systems. Amazon is betting that with the right mix of training, its workforce will be at the cutting edge of this system. We can work with robots and not simply be fearful of their influence. 

Amazon’s decisions and actions in this space are important for the global marketplace. As one of the world leaders in internet commerce, the company’s moves are mimicked and it is clear other major players will follow Amazon’s lead on robotics. Closer to home, Amazon has an even bigger role to play. After buying the Dubai-based online retailer souq.com several years ago, Amazon opened operations in the Middle East. With the UAE as its homebase, the company’s robotic innovations will soon be a fixture in our local marketplace.

Given the UAE’s commitment to artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics through various government initiatives under the directive of the Ministry of AI, the country can learn by following the Amazon model closely. The government is already investing in people as the ultimate building blocks of the future knowledge economy, so it can study which jobs in the data sciences Amazon deems important for its workers. It can also collaborate with the company to ensure that the local workforce receives the same training as Amazon’s US workforce. 

In their reporting of Amazon’s push into robotics, the Times recently sent a reporter into an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey. The report describes what will soon be standard operations in warehouses around the world. “The robots,” the reporter found, “cut down on the walking required of workers, making Amazon pickers more efficient and less tired. The robots also allow Amazon to pack shelves together like cars in rush-hour traffic, because they no longer need aisle space for humans. The greater density of shelf space means more inventory under one roof, which means better selection for customers.” This is the future of work and it does not look bleak.