The future of Amazon’s logistics network will undoubtedly involve artificial intelligence and robotics, but it’s an open question at what point AI-powered machines will be doing a majority of the work. According to Scott Anderson, the company’s director of robotics fulfillment, the point at which an Amazon warehouse is fully, end-to-end automated is at least 10 years away. Anderson’s comments, reported today by Reuters, highlight the current pace of automation, even in environments that are ripe for robotic labor, like an Amazon warehouse.
As it stands today, robots in the workforce are proficient mostly at specific, repeatable tasks for which they are precisely programmed. To get the robot to do something else takes expensive, time-consuming reprogramming. And robots that can perform multiple different tasks and operate in dynamic environments that require the robot see and understand its surroundings are still firmly in the realm of research and experimental trials. Even the simple process of identifying an object and picking it up without having been trained on that object before requires a series of complex, sophisticated software and hardware that does not yet exist in commercial fashion.
So while a robot can help manufacture a microchip and the body of a Tesla motor vehicle, it’s not capable of doing human tasks that warehouse work requires. At Amazon facilities and other companies’ fulfillment centers, a bulk of the labor is still largely done by human hands, because it’s difficult to train robots to see the world and use robotic grippers with the dexterity of human workers.
But as part of the ongoing deep learning revolution that’s accelerated the progress of AI research over the last decade, robots are starting to gain levels of vision and motor control that are approaching human-levels of sophistication.