Working conditions? Amazon's robots have no complaints

Cutting-edge fulfillment centers fitted out with Kiva robots fuel speculation that humans days in the working force could be numbered

blue robots
randychiu (CC BY 2.0)

Santa's workshop ain't what it used to be. A goodly portion of the gifts under the tree this season are likely to come not from the North Pole, but from Amazon, which this week unveiled its eighth-generation fulfillment centers complete with the latest in robotics technology.

Front and center in these cutting-edge warehouses are 15,000 Kiva robots capable of picking up, carrying, and sorting products aided by giant Robo-Stow robotic arms. The sight of these eerily quiet, robot-powered fulfillment centers – which Wired calls "even more improbable than flying reindeer" – is sure to stoke new fears that robots are coming to take our jobs

Not so, says Amazon. The company recently announced it will hire 80,000 seasonal employees – a 14 percent increase over last year – some of whom will stay on in regular, full-time roles.

By teaming robots and humans, Amazon aims to make its already legendarily efficient order fulfillment process even more timely. The Tracy fulfillment center, east of San Francisco, currently ships 700,000 items on a peak day. By the time the facility is fully fitted out with Kiva cohorts, that number will rise as high as 1.5 million items, Dave Clark, Amazon's vice president of worldwide operations, told Wired.

Impatient e-shoppers, disgruntled that Amazon orders must be placed by noon to ensure next-day delivery, may cheer the prospect of this new heightened efficiency. But all that speed comes at a human cost.

Earlier this year, Salon blasted Amazon's working conditions as "worse than Wal-Mart" and likened its treatment of workers to those in 19th-century factories – with a high-tech twist.

Basic tasks at Amazon, such as shelving and packaging goods, are broken down into subtasks, usually measured in seconds, and workers are subject to unrelenting surveillance to ensure they meet productivity targets. Salon's Simon Head says, "Amazon's system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of 'functional foreman,' introduced by [Frederick Winslow] Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s."

Monitoring information is available to management in real time, and workers who fall behind receive text messages pointing this out and warning of consequences. Workers also find their productivity targets continually increase the longer they work at Amazon. An employee at the company's Allentown, Penn., facility says, "It started with 75 pieces an hour, then 100 pieces an hour. Then 150 pieces an hour. They just got faster and faster."

The relentless pace often culminates in workers being fired for failing to meet their ever-rising targets. A Gawker exposé of Amazon's "soul-crushing" work environment notes that "the average Amazon employee stays with Amazon for 14 months.... For a company that prides itself on efficiency, a turnover rate like that seems painfully inefficient – and painful if you're the one left while your co-worker exits. The work will definitely fall on you."

Or as Mother Jones said in its exposé of working conditions at the retail giant: "Every time a 'Place Order' button rings, a poor person takes four Advil and gets told they suck at their job."

Still, when it's a case of bad working conditions vs. no working conditions, the former generally wins, hands down. Among this year's seasonal workers at Amazon will be many senior citizens living in company-sponsored RV camps that Gawker compares to the Great Depression's Hoovervilles.

"Who else wants to hire people in their 50s and older who've been pushed out of the workforce?" said Jessica Bruder, who's writing a book on the subject. "Amazon isn't generous, but it's better than the bottom of the barrel."

Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that Amazon workers are effectively human robots. "The only reason Amazon doesn't actually replace them with robots is they've yet to find a machine that can handle so many different-sized packages," said Ben Roberts, who published a series of photographs exposing the inner workings of a fulfillment center in the English Midlands.

How much longer will that hold true? Most people are employed in occupations that are fundamentally routine and predicable. Oxford University performed a detailed analysis of more than 700 occupations in the United States and concluded that a staggering 47 percent of U.S. employees – more than 60 million jobs – could become automated in the next decade or two.

Pew Research study "AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs" holds out hope that technology will ultimately free workers from day-to-day drudgery and enable them to redefine "work" in a more positive and socially beneficial way. But it acknowledges that while "certain highly-skilled workers will succeed wildly in this new environment, far more may be displaced into lower paying service industry jobs at best, or permanent unemployment at worst."

Tech visionary Elon Musk said recently that artificial intelligence is like "summoning the demon" and may well be humanity's "biggest existential threat." Stephen Hawking this week echoed that sentiment, warning that "the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race." 

On a spectrum with doomsday predictions like these, perhaps Amazon's nonsentient Kiva robots don't look so bad after all.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.