Amazon Tests Robots for Warehouse Item Picking

At last week’s ICRA 2015 conference, an international forum for robotics researchers, Amazon hosted the “Amazon Picking Challenge,” where robots from 27 entrants from around the world tried to autonomously grab items from a shelf and place them in a tub. In other words, the robots had to recognize the different shapes, colors, and sizes of the items to be picked on their own. According to an article in Quartz:

Amazon built a shelf and filled it with a range of everyday items it sells—including Oreos, Cheez-Its, spark plugs, dog treats, and of course, a few books—to test out the challengers’ picking potential…Team RBO from the Technical University of Berlin absolutely dominated the competition. Out of 12 objects encountered, RBO’s robot was able to successfully pick ten.

RBO won the competition with 148 points—along with $20,000 in prize money—while its closest competitor, a team from MIT, received 88 points.

The video below shows the RBO robot in action:

As the video makes clear, the robot is painfully slow, so human workers have nothing to worry about at the moment. In fact, Amazon announced last week that it is creating 6,000 full-time jobs at its fulfillment centers across the U.S.

But from drones to driverless vehicles, the pace of innovation in robotics and related technologies continues to accelerate. And the competition for talent in the robotics field is intensifying too. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that Uber has poached 40 researchers and scientists from Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center as the company ramps up its driverless-car development efforts.

Simply put, when it comes to robots and automation technology in supply chain and logistics, we are rapidly progressing through the Seven Stages of Robot Replacement that Kevin Kelly wrote about in a WIRED magazine article published in December 2012:

In the coming years our relationships with robots will become ever more complex. But already a recurring pattern is emerging. No matter what your current job or your salary, you will progress through these Seven Stages of Robot Replacement, again and again:

1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do

[Later.]

2. OK, it can do a lot of them, but it can’t do everything I do.

[Later.]

3. OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.

[Later.]

4. OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks.

[Later.]

5. OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do.

[Later.]

6. Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more fun and pays more!

[Later.]

7. I am so glad a robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do now.

Looking at how painfully slow the RBO robot picked and placed items, it’s easy to believe that it couldn’t possibly do the job of a warehouse picker. But as the author of the Quartz article put it, “the next generation of robots will undoubtedly be faster and more adept at identifying objects, whereas the next generation of humans will pretty much be as good as the current one.”

I believe we are currently between Stage 2 and Stage 4 in many supply chain and logistics areas. How long until we get to Stage 5 and beyond? Post a comment and share your perspective!

For related commentary, see The Google Robot, Your Future Logistics Worker and Wearable Devices: The New User Interface for Logistics Software

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