Amazon’s ‘collaborative’ robots offer peek into the future

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A woman works at a distrubiton station at the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, on February 5, 2019. (AFP)
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A woman uses a computer to control robots at the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, on February 5, 2019. (AFP)
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Tye Brady, chief technologist for Amazon Robotics stands in the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, on February 5, 2019. (AFP)
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A woman works at a distribution station at the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, on February 5, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 20 February 2019
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Amazon’s ‘collaborative’ robots offer peek into the future

  • Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centers, which chief technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates

NEW YORK: Hundreds of orange robots zoom and whiz back and forth like miniature bumper cars — but instead of colliding, they’re following a carefully plotted path to transport thousands of items ordered from online giant Amazon.
A young woman fitted out in a red safety vest, with pouches full of sensors and radio transmitters on her belt and a tablet in hand, moves through their complicated choreography.
This robot ballet takes place at the new Amazon order fulfillment center that opened on Staten Island in New York in September.
In an 80,000 square-meter (855,000 square-foot) space filled with the whirring sounds of machinery, the Seattle-based e-commerce titan has deployed some of the most advanced instruments in the rapidly growing field of robots capable of collaborating with humans.
The high-tech vest, worn at Amazon warehouses since last year, is key to the whole operation — it allows 21-year-old Deasahni Bernard to safely enter the robot area, to pick up an object that has fallen off its automated host, for example, or check if a battery needs replacing.
Bernard only has to press a button and the robots stop or slow or readjust their dance to accommodate her.

Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centers, which chief technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates.
“What used to take more than a day now takes less than an hour,” he said, explaining they are able to fit about 40 percent more goods inside the same footprint.
For some, these fulfillment centers, which have helped cement Amazon’s dominant position in global online sales, are a perfect illustration of the looming risk of humans being pushed out of certain business equations in favor of artificial intelligence.
But Brady argues that robot-human collaboration at the Staten Island facility, which employs more than 2,000 people, has given them a “beautiful edge” over the competition.
Bernard, who was a supermarket cashier before starting at Amazon, agrees.
“I like this a lot better than my previous jobs,” she told AFP, as Brady looked on approvingly.
What role do Amazon employees play in what Brady calls the human-robot “symphony?“
In Staten Island, on top of tech-vest wearers like Bernard, there are “stowers,” “pickers” and “packers” who respectively load up products, match up products meant for the same customers and build shipping boxes — all with the help of screens and scanners.
At every stage, the goal is to “extend people’s capabilities” so the humans can focus on problem-solving and intervene if necessary, according to Brady.
At the age of 51, he has worked with robotics for 33 years, previously as a spacecraft engineer for MIT and on lunar landing systems of the Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts.
He is convinced the use of “collaborative robots” is the key to future human productivity — and job growth.
Since Amazon went all-in on robotics with the 2012 acquisition of logistics robot-maker Kiva, gains have been indisputable, Brady says.
They’ve created 300,000 new jobs, bringing the total number of worldwide Amazon employees up to 645,000, not counting seasonal jobs.
“It’s a myth that robotics and automation kills jobs, it’s just a myth,” according to Brady.
“The data really can’t be denied on this: the more robots we add to our fulfillment centers, the more jobs we are creating,” he said, without mentioning the potential for lost jobs at traditional stores.

For Brady, the ideal example of human-robot collaboration is the relationship between “R2D2” and Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars.”
Their partnership, in which “R2D2” is always ready to use his computing powers to pull people out of desperate situations “is a great example of how humans and robots can work together,” he said.
But despite Brady’s enthusiasm for a robotic future, many are suspicious of the trend — a wariness that extends to the corporate giant, which this month scrapped high-profile plans for a new New York headquarters in the face of local protests.
Attempts by Amazon employees to unionize, at Staten Island and other sites, have so far been successfully fought back by the company, further fueling criticism.
At a press briefing held last month as part of the unionization push, one employee of the facility, Rashad Long, spoke out about what he said were unsustainable work conditions.
“We are not robots, we are human beings,” Long said.

Many suspect Amazon’s investment in robotics centers aims to eventually automate positions currently held by humans.
For Kevin Lynch, an expert in robotics from Northwestern University near Chicago, the development of collaborative robots is “inevitable” and will indeed eventually eliminate certain jobs, such as the final stage of packing at Amazon for instance.
“I also think other jobs will be created,” he said. “But it’s easier to predict the jobs that will be lost than the jobs that will be created.”
“Robotics and artificial intelligence bring clear benefits to humanity, in terms of our health, welfare, happiness, and quality of life,” said Lynch, who believes public policy has a key role to play in ensuring those benefits are shared, and that robotics and AI do not sharpen economic inequality.
“The growth of robotics and AI is inevitable,” he said. “The real question is, ‘how do we prepare for our future with robots?“


Saudi ICT sector holds key to growth, forum told

Updated 20 March 2019
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Saudi ICT sector holds key to growth, forum told

  • 5G will be used in 30% of big cities in Saudi Arabia by 2020
  • 90% of KSA has 4G technology coverage, including remote centers and villages

RIYADH: Information and communications technology (ICT) is one of the main drivers of development in today’s world, a Riyadh forum on “Digital Transformation for an Ambitious Country” has been told.

In his opening speech to the annual Communications and Information Technology Indicators Forum, Abdul Aziz Al-Ruwais, governor of the Communications and Information Technology Commission, said the ICT sector stimulated productivity, enhanced competitiveness and encouraged innovation.

On Wednesday, the Saudi minister of communications and information technology, Abdullah bin Amer Al-Sawaha, joined regional and global leaders in the ICT sector, telecom executives and government officials at the forum.

Al-Ruwais said that ICT has been used to “develop strategies and regulatory policies that can guarantee the availability of infrastructure, basic apparatus and services in all regions of the Kingdom.”

“In order to facilitate the mission of researchers, experts and those interested in telecommunication services indicators, the Communications and Information Technology Commission established an electronic platform that allows the user to have access to indicators and statistics related to the sector. This platform enables the user to view the indicators in the form of tables and detailed graphs,” he said.

Al-Ruwais said the commission has achieved 90 percent coverage of 4G technologies in the Kingdom, including remote centers and villages.

He said the authority has issued temporary licenses for fifth-generation networks, equipping 153 sites with 5G in nine cities. So far, 680 trials were conducted for 5G.

He said that ICT services achieved high indicators during the 2017 Hajj season, with local and international calls totaling 439 million through 16,000 base stations.

Mufarreh Nahari, director of Market Studies at CITC, said: “It is expected that by 2020 the experimental uses of 5G will be fully completed and they will be ready to launch the official 5G sim by then. By the end of 2020 we expect that 5G will be used in 30 percent of the big cities in Saudi Arabia.”

The past three years have seen an increase in internet usage. In 2018, two-thirds of Internet users in the Kingdom used the internet for more than four hours a day, said Nahari.

Ammar Al-Ansari, department head of Country Digital Acceleration at Cisco, said: “The agreements signed by the crown prince during his overseas visits led to the introduction of a number of artificial intelligence (AI) techniques, including virtual schools and smart classrooms.” 

Seven schools in Saudi have a live stream for teachers to connect with their students. They may be 250 km to 300 km apart, but an active learning session takes place between students and educators.

Al-Ansari displayed a video from a teacher in Jeddah giving lessons to students in the northern region via a smart board. AI was used to monitor and analyze students’ attention spans. 

The analysis will help educators update traditional teaching methods.