Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

The New Warehouse Workers

How cute are these guys? A Boston startup invented them. Supposedly, Amazon has adapted several of their distribution centers to use these puppies. Pretty soon, the complaints will go from working conditions at warehouses to lack of jobs at warehouses.

Another video and more over at The Passive Voice.

28 replies to “The New Warehouse Workers”

People have been predicting the end of the world due to massive unemployment since the days of the Cotton Gin. What we end up finding instead is that freeing people up from one sort of work results in them doing other things instead. The transition may be a bit painful (but change always is), but I sure like living in the world we have today compared to what it was 100 years ago.

One thing that these demos always miss is the manpower needed to create and teach the machines to do the work. As the joke goes, Artificial Intelligence is only 20 years away, and it always will be.

Increased automation of production brings the cost of the products produced down, which lets more people afford them. It also means that when someone has an idea they want to build, the cost of building it is much lower. We can build things today in much smaller quantities and with much higher quality at a much lower cost than we ever could before, and as this trend continues, we will continue to see more tools and gadgets being available for people to use, which in turn frees up more time.

It’s a virtuous circle (with bouts of pain as waves of disruption hit)

You’re right. These innovations will keep freeing up the time and minds of people to make more innovations. Which will speed along the eventual invention of Skynet and Terminators. Then we’ll all be trapped in the Matrix because everybody knows that the 3 laws will be the first thing super intelligent robots break. Then even if we escape Earth on the Battlestar Galactica, there will be the ever present threat of Cylons. Maybe we’d better just start building Silos now.

Asimov’s robot laws were the wrong way of looking at controlling AI. For AI laws to be effective, we need to apply them to designers rather than the AI. Essentially, we need to avoid closing the loop between survival impetus and intelligence in AI designs. This means we need to ban self maintaining AIs and we need to make sure that the network between AIs and any automated maintenance system is so slow that they can’t become integrated.

Anyone who manages to develop the skills to train robots will have plenty of work as manufacturing moves to the locations of the best behavioral programmers rather than the cheapest sweatshop workers. This change will be more of a positive opportunity for people in the US than harm.

The problem is that it takes a lot more education to be able to train/program/maintain robots than it does to fetch products, and the US education system isn’t keeping up.

Or to put it another way, very few blue-collar workers have the skills needed to tell a machine how to do their job….because if they did, they wouldn’t be blue-collar workers in the first place.

I saw a new one today.

you know how companies hire people to stand on street corners waving a sign around?

Today I saw that someone had dressed up a Mannequin with a motor to move the sign and put it out on the street corner instead.

As several stated, it will result in new and different jobs. Someone has to maintain and repair those robots after all.
At least the warehouse robots make more sense than the flying droids. That is still the dumbest thing I have ever heard. First time one of those hits someone, the lawsuit will be massive.

The job-skills which allow someone to performance maintenance and write AI software don’t exactly cross over with the job-skills required to perform warehouse work. There’s not a lot of overlap, between those two fields.

I saw versions of these 20 years ago, even in a disney movie called the Navigator, was that 30 years ago? The tech has barely moved in all that time, so I don’t see it taking over any time soon. As far as those who say robots taking jobs is okay because there will be new jobs created, please, that is not true. A robot will replace ten humans, while one human will maintain that robot and 50 others, which means one robot replaces 499 humans. And don’t talk about people building robots, they will be replaced too; and one man building a robot that will replace 499 people for decades is not job creation.
As far as freeing up time and minds, lol, what do people with time on their hands do? Riot about all the stuff they deserve.(You think those are working people rioting in Ferguson right now?) Busy working people cause less trouble, every society in history that has reached a point where people could sit around thinking has fallen, history repeates itself.

at one time 90% of the humans on the planet were farmers, technology came along that put people out of work by allowing fewer people to raise the needed amount of food.

I’m sure that at the time, some people were opposed to those improvements because it prevented everyone from making a living at farming.

But the decreased cost of food, plus the extra time available for people to do other things allowed for the modern world to develop.

So while it’s not a 1:1 for different jobs being created as robots take over some jobs, the change does allow jobs that you aren’t thinking of that are created because now people can afford to do things that they couldn’t when people were doing the work.

The farmer analogy again? Okay, let’s use your made up numbers. 90% of people were farmers, so since ten percent must have been the hunters, leaders, housewives and clergy, the employment rate must have been 100%, or close to it.
What is the rate today? 70%? Don’t use the presidents fake numbers, 9% might be collecting unemployment but another 9% are not because they ran out of benifits, so we will count the people who live on welfare as unemployed, because i deal in reality. The average worldwide unemployment rates are from 8 to 26%, which really means 15 to 40% of people with no real full time jobs. Why didn’t they all get these wonderful new jobs you are talking about? You think if you put another 20% out of work they will find magical jobs somewhere? There are not enough jobs now.
It is a dream to think you can replace thousands of third world factory workers with machines and they will magically find new jobs. But the point is…. according to you everyone used to have a job, now an awful lot of people don’t, so you disproved your own theory.
People do too much thinking from their own cushy little perspectives, you sound like a famous line “They have no bread? Let them eat cake”. You sound like someone who has never lost a job before, and don’t have any idea how hard it is to make a living…even in America, never mind Africa or India.

I don’t believe Obama’s numbers

At one point it was 90% farming (or hunting) because if you didn’t, you starved. And this included children, women, and elderly.

At some point, with eliminating child labor, retirement, and women not working, we got down to a much lower percentage of the population working (I would guess 30-50%, but that’s a guess)

then the percentage started going up as more women started working and people started delaying retirement (although, since we are living longer, this may still result in more elderly who aren’t working)

There are always going to be people who aren’t working, many because they don’t want to (and are supported by family).

And there are always going to be people who want work, but can’t find it (or at least, can’t find it at the pay they are willing to work for)

But trying to block technology eliminating jobs is not the way to address this issue. The UAW (auto workers) tried this, and the result is Detroit. They ‘successfully’ blocked their companies from paying them any less, or hiring fewer people (to the point that I’ve heard stories of paint robots being brought into the factories and the union requiring that there be four guys with paint sprayers in an adjoining compartment, spraying the window so that nobody lost their job), and the result was that their competition in other countries undercut them with a better product and just about put the union’s company out of business, resulting in massive layoffs and unfeasible debts (including pension payments)

That’s what will happen if you worry first about ‘saving jobs’ instead of producing the product at the lowest cost.

On the other hand, when you do produce the best products at the lowest costs, you end up enabling things that you never imagined. What can be produced by a small or micro business today with the decreased design and production costs allows for a flood of new products and companies that could not have been imagined. Addressing the general topics of this blog, think about what has become possible due to the advances in printers and computers and all the writers who are now able to make a living who couldn’t before.

some people who are replaced by robots will get jobs maintaining and programming those robots

some will get jobs in new businesses (or found new businesses)

and some will sit on their couch as long as other people will fund them to do so.

When push comes to shove, people will do what they need to do, work whatever job then can get, and cut back on everything else to get by. I’ve seem it happen to friends and family, some of who went from being very highly paid professional specialists to working paper routes and low-end retail sales to pay the bills. But none of them would argue for blocking the advance of technology, they were a part of that advance for many years before hitting a stretch of bad luck (and the reluctance of companies to hire older tech workers, which is a topic for a different rant)

Ah but here is the problem, Amazon is making plenty of money and is in competition with no one. Just because one in a thousand writers can make a living, that doesn’t help the 999 who still need jobs.
Maybe you can break it down for me? Lets say Amazon replaces ten thousand unskilled packagers with robots, they hire a handful of skilled guys from somewhwhere else to maintain the robots, where exactly do the thousands of unskilled packagers go to get jobs? Be specific, if they had any skills they wouldn’t be packing boxes, if they could get better jobs they would have gotten them already. If they could repair robots they wouldn’t be packing boxes for a living. I just can’t see where all these people will get jobs…

Amazon isn’t in competition with anyone?

Ok, then why are we seeing stories about how Amazon is crushing bookstores, how it’s taking over this and that?

you don’t get to have it both ways.

If the Amazon Board of Directors were to decide tomorrow that the company is evil and they wanted to shut it down immediately, there would be a dozen competitors springing up the day after to serve the need that they identified (besides the stockholder lawsuit against the BoD for being so stupid :-)

But even ignoring that. Amazon already delivers good with less labor involved than other people, so they have already cost people jobs.

They have also saved small businesses who sell through Amazon.

They have also made life much better for many people who can now find things and buy them easily when they couldn’t before. This has allowed some people to start and run their own business that they couldn’t have done before because it would have taken too much of their attention to handle the basics.

Getting the same result with less manpower needed is progress, something to be encouraged, not something to fight against. And as I say above, even if one company (or country) decides to to pursue such advances, other companies or countries will do so and the ones who don’t will go out of business.

I just wanted to say a special thanks for all your contributions to the writer community. There is a new self-published author (Bradley Hanson) on Amazon that wouldn’t be there except for you. So far, he has published 3 short stories of which my favorite is Henry’s Penance.

I say: Good! As someone who just left (as in yesterday) two years of work in the warehouse industry? Warehouse work is balls. Most of them don’t hire-on full time and instead farm a churn-and-burn sea of washout employees from awful temp agencies. The pay is crap, benefits typically nonexistent, and the conditions are just awful. I worked in one place that ran 16-hour shifts (from two in the afternoon until sun-up) with broken glass covering the floor, where people operated trailer-trucks and forklifts within the first few hours of employment. For ten dollars an hour. With no job security, no benefits, no vacation, and the idea of unionization a distant laughable pipe-dream.

From the depths of my soul: fuck the warehouse industry.

And I assure you: Amazon’s less-than-stellar warehouses are the rule, not the exception. Which doesn’t ameliorate the accusations people have rightly leveled at them — I’m just saying. In warehouse work, “shitty” is the industry-standard.

(Fun aside: my new job, an editorial position at a publishing company, starts on Monday. So you might say I’ve moved from impending obsolescence to actively-transpiring obsolescence.)

I guess there is a limit to discussions, David Lang got the last word, lol. No, Amazon does not have competition. That is like saying McDonalds is in competition with the guy selling hotdogs on a street corner. Technically you might be correct, but real competition means you have a chance at losing everything and the hot dog guy won’t shut down McDonalds any more than bookstores will shut down Amazon.
And the one question was ignored… If Amazon hires 100 robots to replace 1000 people, and hires 5 people to maintain the robots, where do the 995 people get jobs, exactly? All I hear is the ‘wonderful life’ version, “Oh they will go train for new jobs”, but we know for a fact that doesn’t happen. How many auto workers in Detroit are still on welfare? Most of them.

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