March of the Machines: Amazon’s Robot Workforce and the Future of Work

Robots are increasingly in the headlines. Whether it’s domestic robots for completing household chores or industrial robots with the potential to transform entire industries, it seems like we are on the verge of a new machine age. At the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas— the annual industry showcase for high technology—robots were everywhere: from Robomart’s delivery robot to Panasonic’s Laundroid that helpfully folds your laundry.

Few organizations, however, have been as innovative in bringing robots into the workplace than global e-commerce and cloud computing giant Amazon. With more than 80 fulfillment centers worldwide, Amazon’s logistics operation moves millions of packages per day, and that requires an enormous workforce (or associates) who are required to pick, pack, and dispatch everything from books to washing machines. But among their human co-workers, robots, or droids, are increasingly being used to complete tasks that were previously accomplished by hand.

Since 2014, Amazon has been rolling out robots to its global network of fulfillment centers. Recent estimates show 100,000 robots completing tasks that were previously done by associates, and this automated warehouse system continues to grow exponentially. In 2012, Amazon acquired Kiva Systems for $775 million, and the renamed Amazon Robotics is now at the forefront of warehouse automation, with ambitious plans to make robots central to the company’s future growth.

What does this mean for the human workforce, and, more importantly, the skills needed to compete in the coming robot age? Commenting upon the changes to the nature of work since the Industrial Revolution, Israeli historian and best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari believes that as industries changed in previous centuries new jobs were created. Harari says that, “as old professions became obsolete, new professions evolved, and there was always something humans could do better than machines.”

As people moved from the agricultural sector to the factories and then on to service industries, the possibility for new employment and the need for new skills increased during the 20th century. Harari believes things may be different from the past and that millions of jobs in the service sector are threatened with automation in a way that is unprecedented compared to previous centuries.

Amazon provides an interesting case study as to what the future of work may look like. The company is still adding people; humans continue to outperform droids in picking the various sized items from shelves, for example. The company also added 80,000 people in its warehouse operations to form an existing total of 125,000, even since the introduction of the Kiva robots. Dave Clark, the senior executive in charge of operations at Amazon, believes history shows automation increases both productivity and demand from consumers, which means warehouse workers will continue to work in a technologically innovative environment.

Alternatively, a report from the UK, paints a more pessimistic picture of the future of work in the face of automation. In a report from March 2017, consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) suggests 38 percent of jobs in the United States could be at a high risk of automation as early as the 2030s, compared to 30 percent in the UK, 35 percent in Germany, and 21 percent in Japan, with the greatest risks faced by workers in sectors such as manufacturing, retail, and transportation.

Nevertheless, for Amazon and other organizations faced with automation, there remains opportunity for advanced skills, such as software engineering, machine design, and a range of other innovative tasks that remain reliant upon creativity and ingenuity. Furthermore, the PwC report also paints a more promising picture for those workers with a higher education qualification. The report suggests those workers with a high school education or lower face a 46 percent risk of automation, whereas, for those with an undergraduate degree or higher, the number falls to 12 percent.

If Amazon teaches us anything, then the “march of the machines” does threaten employment for many workers, but, as with previous changes to the nature of work, those individuals willing to invest in their future remain the people most able to adapt to a new environment. As robots replace the more repetitive tasks, the role of the skilled logistician or the software engineer becomes paramount to keep the more productive and efficient processes running. Amazon shows automation increases productivity and demand from consumers, and this is good news for individuals willing to learn and retrain to meet the challenges of tomorrow.