In a giant warehouse in Reading, Massachusetts, I meet a pair of robots that look like goofy green footstools from the future. Their round eyes and satisfied grins are rendered with light emitting diodes. They sport small lidar sensors like tiny hats that scan nearby objects and people in 3D. Suddenly, one of them plays a chipper little tune, its mouth starts flashing, and its eyes morph into heart shapes. This means, I am told, that the robot is happy.
Proteus, as Amazon calls this machine, is not like other industrial robots, which are generally as expressive and aware of their surroundings as actual footstools. “Wait, why would a robot be happy?” I ask. Sophie Li, a software engineer at Amazon, explains that being able to express happiness can help Proteus work more effectively around people.
Proteus carries suitcase-sized plastic bins filled with packages over to trucks in a loading bay that is also staffed by humans. The robot is smart enough to distinguish people from inanimate objects and make its own decisions about how to navigate around a box or person in its path. But sometimes it needs to tell someone to move out of the way—or that it is stuck, which it does by showing different colors with its mouth. Li recently added the heart eyes to let Proteus also signal when it has completed a task as planned.
“Proteus will hopefully make people happy,” Li says, referring to the workers who will toil alongside the robot, transferring packages from bins into trucks. “And if not, well, at least it should do what they expect it to.”
I find myself wondering if some people might, in reality, find the robot’s cheeriness a bit annoying. But perhaps putting a friendly face on the new wave of automation about to sweep through Amazon’s fulfillment centers isn’t a bad idea.
Proteus is part of an army of smarter robots currently rolling into Amazon’s already heavily automated fulfillment centers. Some of these machines, such as Proteus, will work among humans. And many of them take on tasks previously done by people. A robot called Sparrow, introduced in November 2022, can pick individual products from storage cubbies and place them into larger plastic bins—a step towards human-like dexterity, a holy grail of robotics and a bottleneck in the automation of a lot of manual work. Amazon also last year invested in a startup that makes humanoid robots capable of carrying boxes around.
Amazon’s latest robots could bring about a company-wide—and industry-wide—shift in the balance between automation and people. When Amazon first rolled out large numbers of robots, after acquiring startup Kiva Systems and its shelf-carrying robots in 2012, the company redesigned its fulfillment centers and distribution network, speeding up deliveries and capturing even more business. The ecommerce firm may now be on the cusp of a similar shift, with the new robots already starting to reshape fulfillment centers and how its employees work. Certain jobs will be eliminated while new ones will emerge—just as long as its business continues growing. And competitors, as always, will be forced to adapt or perish.
Proteus isn’t the only robot being put through its paces at the Reading facility, which houses Amazon Robotics, a laboratory and foundry for the company’s warehouse robots. Nearby, a small platoon of blue mobile robots, each about the size of a push lawn mower, are going through some algorithmic choreography. I watch as they drive, one by one, into large machines that test the performance of their wheels and other features. Those declared fit for service then trundle under a walkway and into packing crates destined for Amazon fulfillment hubs.
The visit provides a rare glimpse of how Amazon’s develops its industrial robots. I am accompanied by Xavier Van Chau from Amazon public relations, who arrived on a red-eye from the company’s Seattle headquarters and is highly enthusiastic and impressively caffeinated. While Amazon Robotics engineers show off machines that will significantly shift the line between what humans and machines can do, my chaperone supplies a stream of anecdotes about workers who love their robot coworkers or their new robot-related roles.
Some workers in Amazon’s fulfillment centers have of course shared their own anecdotes about the company pushing them hard in the name of efficiency, although the company maintains staff welfare is a top concern. In January the company was called out by US regulators for poor workplace safety and it has faced industrial action and walkouts in several US states and the UK. Leaked documents obtained by Vox suggest that Amazon expects it to become more challenging to find enough people to hire in the US as warehouse workers, due in part to high staff turnover. Accelerated adoption of robotics may help the company soften some of the challenges posed by its human workforce.
But to replace human labor, these robots need to be built. And much of that work is done by humans. At a nearby production line, Amazon workers are busily putting robots together, hefting large pieces of steel around with the help of mechanical arms and installing electronics, sensors, and motors.
Jobs in robot manufacturing and maintenance have multiplied at Amazon since it began ramping up its use of robots. The company also opened a new manufacturing facility dedicated to making robots in Westborough, Massachusetts, in 2021. But the addition of manufacturing workers and engineers means that other jobs at Amazon are changing—or disappearing altogether.
Amazon’s first robots, from the acquisition of Kiva, were low-slung orange brutes—Cro-Magnon ancestors to Proteus—that blindly followed preprogrammed routes inside large caged-off areas. The robots rolled beneath shelves of cubbies stuffed with different products, and carried them over to human pickers on the edge of the automation zone. The humans would grab products to assemble customer orders, placing them into bins that were sent for packaging and shipping.
That automated retrieval system let Amazon store more goods in the same space, and move them to customers more quickly, helping the company ascend to the pinnacle of ecommerce in the eyes of customers, investors, and competitors. Between 2010 and 2020, sales on Amazon rose 10-fold from $34 billion to $386 billion, and its robot workforce soared too. Between 2013 and 2023, the cumulative number of robots made by Amazon grew from 10,000 to 750,000.
Today, three quarters of all Amazon’s products—every conceivable item you could need and plenty you probably don’t—are handled at some point by one of the company’s robots. The 750,000 mobile robots at more than 300 Amazon fulfillment centers worldwide can trace their lineage back to the first Kiva machines. Amazon also employs more than 1.3 million workers at these locations. Van Chau of Amazon declines to say how it expects the number of robots it uses to grow in the years ahead but says it will “continue to grow very rapidly.”
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