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The Missouri Miner

Missouri S&T's Student Newspaper
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EST. 1915

Amazon: Humans V. Robots

Mary Rommer

At what point does technology contain too much autonomous power? This is the question fifty-four Amazon workers were forced to consider after a robot tore open a can of bear repellent in a New Jersey factory in December. Of those employees affected, twenty-four were sent to five nearby hospitals while the remaining thirty received on site treatment. This is a slight malfunction compared to the potential for disaster observed when examining the close working conditions between robots and humans in Amazon warehouses. Robots carry massive loads, work at high speeds, and make up a large total of today’s factory workforce with the number reaching over 100,000 robots in Amazon factories alone. Robots are in closer contact with humans than they have been in the past. Because of these risk factors, Amazon is now providing workers with belts containing built in sensors which work in coordination with the robot’s obstacle detection system to alert the robots of human presence. The detection occurs at a distance from which the robots can calculate an alternative route to avoid collisions with humans. Thus far twenty-five testing locations have found the belt to be successful, but many still fear this is another step in the next industrial revolution in which human laborer’s will be replaced by robot counterparts. Contributing to this theory is Amazon’s patents on drone delivery. In this application Amazon plans to use drones containing a communication system with sensors and cameras to detect human gestures and voice. If the drone detects motion and language which clears them to deliver, the package will be given to the human, but if the drone picks up on shouting and shooing gestures the delivery will be aborted. Amazon is also using robots for the transportation of workers within the factory. Consisting of a cage on top of a mechanical arm, this Amazon patent allows workers to repair robots in robot only zones by carrying them over the working robots and elevating them next to the machine to be repaired. The robotic arm method prevents the shutdown that previously would have had to occur for a human to enter such zones and provide maintenance.

There is no question as to the huge leaps in efficiency these technological advancements have allowed, but other impacts are not so easily accepted. Jobs involving physical labor, such as stocking shelves in warehouses and even janitorial services, have in many cases unwillingly replaced humans with robots. However, in doing so, more jobs have been created than destroyed as the maintenance, supervision, and advancement of robots require a great deal of human capability and creativity. For many this fact still does not ease the tension of handing over their job to a machine. The line between human workers and robotic workers has become blurred to the point that a new social structure is to be observed in the workplace; that between humans and robots. Robots continue to push at the boundaries of humanity in the name of efficiency and it appears that society has no choice but to adapt to their new coworkers with science and technology advancing at incredible rates.


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