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Humans and Machines Become One In the Amazon Warehouse

Hundreds of robots go round and round the 125,000 square foot “field” as their human companions (or masters, whichever you like) direct them where to go and put the packages that they are holding. Matt Simon of Wired describes the situation inside the warehouses of Amazon in one word: chaotic.

Amazon needs this robotic system to supercharge its order fulfillment process and make same-day delivery a widespread reality. But the implications strike at the very nature of modern labor: Humans and robots are fusing into a cohesive workforce, one that promises to harness the unique skills of both parties. With that comes a familiar anxiety—an existential conundrum, even—that as robots grow ever more advanced, they’re bound to push more and more people out of work. But in reality, it’s not nearly as simple as all that.
This Colorado Warehouse is, in a way, a monument to robots. It’s not one of the Amazon fulfillment centers you’ve probably heard of by now, in which humans grab all the items in your order and pack them into a box. This is a sorting facility, which receives all those boxes and puts them on trucks to your neighborhood. The distinction is important: These squat, wheeled drives aren’t tasked with finely manipulating your shampoos and books and T-shirts. They’re mules.
Very, very finely tuned mules. A system in the cloud, sort of like air traffic control, coordinates the route of every robot across the floor, with an eye to potential interference from other drives on other routes. That coordination system also decides when a robot should peel off to the side and dock in a charger, and when it should return to work. Sometimes the route selection can get even more complicated, because particularly populous zip codes have more than one chute, so the system needs to factor in traffic patterns in deciding which portal a robot should visit.
“It's basically a very large sudoku puzzle,” says Ryan Clarke, senior manager of Special Amazon Robotics Technology Applications. “You want every column and every row to have an equal amount of drops. How do we make sure that every row and every column looks exactly equal to each other?” The end goal is to minimize congestion through an even distribution of traffic across the field. So on top of tweaking the robots’ routes, the system can actually switch the chute assignments around to match demand, so that neither the robots nor the human sorters they work with hit any bottlenecks.

(Image Credit: Amazon)


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