John Harris

Journalist & Author

Meet your new cobot: is a machine coming for your job?

As robots slash the time it takes to complete an order at companies like Amazon and Ocado, what does that mean for their human colleagues?

Next to the M56, on the outskirts of Manchester, the future has landed. A cluster of huge distribution centres sits at the heart of Airport City, a new development part-funded by the Beijing Construction Engineering Group (two years ago, it was visited by president Xi Jinping of China). Among the biggest buildings is one of Amazon’s self-styled “fulfilment centres”. Known within the company as MAN1, it opened in September last year, but everything inside, from the chairs to the wall-mounted screens, looks as if it has just come out of a box. Deeper within the centre, beyond the reception area and meeting rooms, there is something else just as new: a great expanse of space behind a metal cage, where dozens of robots, finished in Amazon orange and each emblazoned with its own number, glide across the floor, gracefully avoiding collisions and sprinting to their next task.

Amazon employees call them “drives”, but to all intents and purposes these are droids, summoned from the dreams of science fiction and put to work. In some Amazon warehouses, workers – or, in the company’s parlance, “associates” – still pace up and down huge aisles, picking out goods and preparing them for shipment; these shifts are said sometimes to involve hikes of 11 miles. But here everything moves much more quickly. The humans in charge of the process known as “picking” now remain in closed workstations, built around a screen that tells them what they need to get next, while the robots bring the shelves – reinvented as four-sided fabric towers, full of pouches that contain everything from DVDs to dolls – to them.

There are tasks only a human can do, such as the careful packing of boxes. But for how long?

It’s not that the robot replaces the person. New possibilities open up

A lot of people who are highly skilled will gain from automation. Lower-skilled workers are likely to lose out

We’re all going to have many careers now. We will need good basic education, plus resilience, curiosity and adaptability

Continue reading…

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