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Symphony of humans and machines or “Modern Times”?

“Chuck” robots have been designed to follow workers along the warehouse to be ready at hand to help. Image credit: 6 River Systems

Robots are becoming a ubiquitous presence in factories and warehouses. There are not just “more” robots, they are requiring and establishing a different relationship with human beings, actually I should say with their “co-workers”.

This is a step in the direction foreseen by the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative (now merged with the Digital Reality Initiative) with a trend towards a symbioses of humans and machines (take a look at the White Papers published).

In the photo the image of 3 robots operating in a warehouse. Nicknamed Chuck, they have been designed by 6 River Systems to cooperate with humans. Chuck follows a human (it can spot the human through tags worn by the worker) and “gives a hand” when needed.

Amazon has been increasing over the last 4 years the robotisation of its warehouses. In the US it started with 15,000 robot units back in 2014 and in 2019 they had over 200,000 robots -called drives- operating in their warehouses.

The pervasiveness of robots on the working place may be awkward, and not just because one see them taking over several of the work activity previously carried out by humans (hence leading to headcount reduction…). Workers are starting to perceive them as intrusive partners that are sometime difficult to predict. In Amazon warehouses some workers say they have to watch out for “drives” as they seem to come out of the blue. Indeed, a “drive” weights half a ton and you don’t want to be hit by one of them.

A new worker figure is emerging, the one that has to take care of robots on the workplace. They are equipped with a belt that works like a magic wand stopping drives on their track. These workers are there to reload a parcel that has been dropped, to manage a traffic jam…

So far the flexibility of these robots cannot compare with the one of human workers: Amazon hired 200,000 temp workers to manage the 2019 holiday season, that is double the number of temp hired in 2018, and this in spite of the 100,000 new robots that entered into service in 2019 in its warehouses.

Amazon robotic chief, Tye Brady, has an optimistic view:

“The efficiencies we gain from our associates and robotics working together harmoniously — what I like to call a symphony of humans and machines working together — allows us to pass along a lower cost to our customer.”

Others are a bit less optimistic and see the increasing interaction of robots with humans as a cause of stress. Robots never tired out, like the ever moving conveyor that forced Charlie Chaplin to work as … a robot in Modern Times (watch the clip).

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.