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Wednesday 15 May 2019

Advance of the robots

I’ve long been intrigued by how automation changes the job market. Agriculture is a particular area of interest as so much more food can now be produced per person than a generation ago. See Automation in agriculture.  Last week I watched as cows walked themselves, when they liked, into an unmanned milking parlour, got milked, had  a snack and returned to the field. Yesterday, Anthony Miller wrote about the Karakuri fast food robot designed to produce customised meas at high volume. I’ve recently seen (albeit prototype) machines picking soft fruit - a task that was thought impossible only a few years ago. See Automating picking soft fruit. My neighbour’s grass is cut by six robot mowers which even return themselves to their charging points as required. See Say 'Goodbye' to mowing the lawn.

Amazon boxToday I read in The Times (they quoted their source as Reuters) about Amazon rolling out robots that can pack boxes. Amazon’s existing 100,000+ robots are mainly used to pick and transport stock - leaving the fiddly task of packing them into boxes to humans. Let’s face it this must be one of the most boring, repetitive jobs on earth. Amazon has addressed the issue by getting the robots to assess the item and then build a bespoke box to fit it. Amazon says these robots (built by Italian firm CMC Sri)  can pack 700 boxes an hour - at least 5x the rate of a human. The robots cost $1m each and are already in use in Manchester, Frankfurt and Milan with plans for another 55 Amazon sites. Amazon’s ultimate aim is ‘Lights Out’ warehouses.

One can have an interesting debate on whether this is ‘good’. Packing 2 or 3 boxes per minute must be one of the most boring, mindless jobs. But it is a job. Robots tend to create jobs for highly skilled people to both build and maintain them. Just think of the skills you need to be a BMW car mechanic nowadays.

There again, the more automation, the cheaper the product, the more people can afford to buy etc. Automation in the car industry didn’t destroy jobs overall as it created huge demand, for example, people working in filling stations.

Then, of course, with the current wave of concern about our planet, one might wish to reduce consumer demand - not increase it by making such items even more affordable.

Posted by Richard Holway at '07:34'

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