Machines Compete in Amazon Robotic Challenge 

The latest Amazon Robotic Challenge took place over July 27-30 in Nagoya Japan, hosting a competition to develop a grasping machine that can pack boxes for shipment in the company’s warehouses. Or as ZeroHedge put it so clearly: Amazon Hosts Robotics Competition To Figure Out How To Replace 230,000 Warehouse Workers.

Amazon warehouses depend on the little orange robots to bring racks of merchandise to human pickers who pack the boxes with the customers’ orders.

The contest used to be called the Amazon Picking Challenge, but the big management brains may have thought it was time for a classier name. I see the earlier Url for the event, AmazonPickingChallenge.org has been transformed into AmazonRobotics.com.

“Picking” is the term for pulling items from the warehouse inventory to be packed into boxes for customers’ orders. But as the video below shows, packing may be the harder challenge. The robot sucks up objects well enough and then drops them into a large box, with no attempt to use space efficiently. Amazon may have to order a lot of extra large boxes if this sort of machine is adopted.

I’ve blogged about this competition over the last three years and can report no stunning breakthroughs. For example, the robots in the video following aren’t able to pick up the objects on every try:

Below is the winner, from Australia, Robot Vision’s Cartman, that does the basic grab-and-drop pretty well, but no human pickers need to be worried about their jobs just yet.

The upshot is the amazing dexterity of the human hand coupled with our brains is very hard to recreate in a machine. However, the machines are going gangbusters in many other areas of work, from farms to factories, so the fact remains that America should seriously reduce the number of immigrant workers imported by the government. We have plenty of them already.

Amazon’s New Robo-Picker Champion Is Proudly Inhuman, MIT Technology Review, July 31, 2017

It only needs to see seven images of a new object before it can reliably spot and grab it.

A robot that owes rather a lot to an annoying arcade game has captured victory in Amazon’s annual Robotics Challenge.

E-commerce companies like Amazon and Ocado, the world’s largest online-only grocery retailer, currently boast some of the most heavily automated warehouses in the world. But items for customers’ orders aren’t picked by robots, because machines cannot yet reliably grasp a wide range of different objects.

That’s why Amazon gathers together researchers each year to test out machines that pick and stow objects. It’s a tough job, but one that could ultimately help the company to fully automate its warehouses. This year the task was made even harder than usual: teams had only 30 minutes for their robots to familiarize themselves with the objects before trying to pick them out of a jumble of items. That, says Amazon, is supposed to better simulate warehouse conditions, where new stock is arriving all the time and pallets may not be neatly organized.

The winner, a robot called Cartman, was built by the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision. Unlike many competitors, which used robot arms to carry out the tasks, Cartman is distinctly inhuman, with its grippers moving in 3-D along straight lines like an arcade claw crane. But it works far, far better. According to Anton Milan, one of Cartman’s creators, the device’s computer-vision systems were crucial to the victory. “One feature of our system was that it worked off a very small amount of hand annotated training data,” he explained to TechAU. “We only needed just seven images of each unseen item for us to be able to detect them.”

That kind of fast learning is a huge area of research for machine learning experts. Last year, DeepMind showed off a so-called “one-shot” learning system, that can identify objects in a image after having only seen them once before. But the need to identify objects that are obscured by other items and pick them up means that Cartman needs a little more data than that.

(Read more: TechAU, “Robot, Get the Fork Out of My Sink,” “Machines Can Now Recognize Something After Seeing It Once,” “Inside Amazon”)

Amazon’s Picking Challenge Spotlights Robotic Advances

Tuesday was the Amazon Prime day, where super deals were offered to shoppers of the online store who pay a fee for extra services. Last year’s Prime Day broke records with its total of 34.4 million items ordered in eligible countries worldwide. That task requires mega processing capability that depends on computers and automation, particularly the company’s Kiva robots that move the orders from storage to packaging to shipping in enormous warehouses.

Jeff Bezos’ vision of automated retail extends beyond the Kiva robots however, as shown by the Amazon Picking Challenge, an annual contest to encourage the creation of robots that have human-like manual dexterity. When machines can pick individual items from a shelf and put them into a box, then quite a few human workers will lose their jobs. Amazon paid $775 million for Kiva Systems, and the people who build the chosen robot picker will pocket quite a tidy sum.

Amazon’s video of the 2015 contest was explanatory without being too wonky:

The rapid progress of technology as highlighted by this competition should remind us all how the very basics of the economy — namely workers earning money to buy the products they and others produce — are being undermined. Yet none of our political leaders are discussing how the revolutionary changes to society will be addressed.

The politicians could start by ending immigration, since citizens will need all the remaining jobs. Oxford researchers estimated in 2013 that nearly half of US jobs were vulnerable to automation within 20 years, and the progress of the intervening years has done nothing to refute that idea.

Below, Kiva robots move racks of merchandise in Amazon’s Tracy CA warehouse.

KivaRobotsTransportItemsTracyCAwarehouse

Amazon moves one step closer toward army of warehouse robots, Guardian, July 4, 2016

Robotics competition prize for best warehouse-working ‘picker’ machine awarded to robot designed by Dutch team

Amazon’s progress toward an army of helpful robots is one step closer: a prize for the best warehouse-working “picker” machine has gone to a robot designed by a team from TU Delft Robotics Institute and Delft Robotics, both based in the Netherlands.

The competition was held in conjunction with Germany’s Robocup in Leipzig. Announced on Monday, the winners took home $25,000, while the university of Bonn’s NimbRo won $10,000 for second place and Japanese firm PFN was awarded $5,000 for third.

The contest, in Amazon’s words, “aimed to strengthen the ties between the industrial and academic robotic communities,” and ended with slightly fewer than half of the entrants scoring more than 20 out of 40 possible points, according to a report in TechRepublic. The technology is advancing quickly: all of those contestants would have surpassed the highest scorer in the previous Picking Challenge, held just three years ago. Continue reading this article

SpotMini Robot Loads Dishwasher and Delivers Beer

Last February, millions watched a video of Boston Dynamics’ amazing Atlas robot as it walked with ease through a snowy landscape.

Did you see it? Watch that video here.

Now the company is back with an even more advanced machine — SpotMini — that can grasp and place a wine glass into a dishwasher without breakage, as well as trot along, deliver a beer and quickly get up after slipping on a banana peel.

The company includes this explanatory blurb with its video:

Introducing SpotMini, Published on Jun 23, 2016

SpotMini is a new smaller version of the Spot robot, weighing 55 lbs dripping wet (65 lbs if you include its arm.) SpotMini is all-electric (no hydraulics) and runs for about 90 minutes on a charge, depending on what it is doing. SpotMini is one of the quietest robots we have ever built. It has a variety of sensors, including depth cameras, a solid state gyro (IMU) and proprioception sensors in the limbs. These sensors help with navigation and mobile manipulation. SpotMini performs some tasks autonomously, but often uses a human for high-level guidance. For more information about SpotMini visit our website at www.BostonDynamics.com

SpotMini is a smaller, quieter version of the carry-all robot that was rejected by the Marines for being too noisy. SpotMini is designed with home use in mind, and people don’t want a loud machine clanking around the place.

Below, SpotMini, the house robot, awaits master’s next command.

SpotMiniRobotLivingRoom

The ability of SpotMini to manipulate a wine glass safely shows how rapidly human-like dexterity is being developed, and that capability is the Holy Grail for business. Once machine smarts can be married up with the precise movements of the human hand, then many more jobs will be transferred to the automation column, like picking vegetables, sewing clothing and packing customer orders into boxes in an Amazon warehouse.

Speaking of Amazon, that company has grown enormously from its use of increasingly automated processing centers where Kiva robots deliver ordered merchandise to human workers who load boxes for shipment. CEO Jeff Bezos wants to automate further, as shown by the Amazon Picking Challenge, a competition to develop a dexterous robot that can replace the humans (and their amazing hands).

The trend in the economy is for more automation and fewer workers. The May employment statistics showed a record 94.7 million working-age Americans not present in the workforce. Surely there has been a cumulative effect of decades of industrial outsourcing and immigration, plus automation now added to the mix of job-killing policies and technology.

In 2013, two Oxford University researchers forecast that nearly half of US jobs might be automated or computerized within 20 years. The Gartner tech consultants predicted in 2014 that one in three jobs will be done by machines by 2025. Those forecasts don’t look out of line with what we see today.

For sure, immigration of cheapie foreign workers for “jobs Americans just don’t want” (a questionable concept anyway) is a relic from the 20th century, because machines are doing those unpleasant jobs now. Therefore:

Automation makes immigration obsolete.

Amazon’s Successful Automation Boosts Employment — For Now

Amazon’s automated warehouses continue to show how rapidly smart machines are taking over tasks that were performed by humans. A few years ago, workers pushed carts for miles around the warehouse picking out items for customer orders. Huffpo reported in 2011, “Some workers at Amazon.com’s Allentown, Pennsylvania warehouse are reportedly willing to contend with working at a brutal pace in dizzying heat so long as it means having a job.”

Was that only five years ago? It shows how quickly an industry can change when modern automation is applied.

Now the Amazon warehouse is immersed in tech, and other companies are turning to automation as the capability of the machines improves. For example, Walmart announced early this month that it was six to nine months from using drones within its warehouses to do inventory, cutting the time of that chore from one month to one day.

San Jose California is a part of Silicon Valley, and naturally awareness of tech issues is high there. The home town Mercury News had a front-page spread on Sunday that focused on the employment threat presented by robots, as represented by the automation powerhouse that Amazon has become. The paper tried to draw a fine line, cheering the advances of robots and the jobs added to the nearby Amazon warehouse in Tracy while also observing the long-term inevitable job loss.

AmazonRobotsJobThreat-SJMfp

Despite the Mercury’s happy talk, the clear trend is for hugely fewer jobs in the future because of automation. Warehouse worker is one of millions of ordinary occupations that have disappeared since the great recession began, the result being that the choices for job seekers have shrunk enormously. Oxford University researchers predicted in 2013 that nearly half of American jobs could be automated within 20 years. The Gartner technology consultants predict that one-third of US jobs will be done by a computer or robot by 2025. That’s a grim future that no political leaders even mention.

Certainly within such a dire employment prospects, it makes no sense for Washington to continue importing millions of unnecessary immigrant workers. In fact…

Automation makes immigration obsolete.

Amazon’s success has led to employment growth for the time being, but improving technology means fewer jobs later on. How do these brilliant captains of industry like Jeff Bezos expect the economy to run when half or more of the jobs (and paychecks!) have disappeared?

Amazon’s robot army fuels expansion, San Jose Mercury News, June 10, 2016

TRACY — In Amazon’s million-square-foot order-filling warehouse, two low-slung orange robots carrying stacks of consumer products are zipping across the floor, headed right at each other. One stops — not on a dime, it turns out, but rather over a QR code stuck to the floor — and allows the other to proceed, carrying inventory to a human worker who will pluck out an item, scan it and send it off for packing and shipping.

In this building the size of 28 football fields, containing four miles of conveyor belts and 15 million items awaiting customer orders from Northern California and beyond, the two limbless goods-moving machines are part of Amazon’s 30,000-strong robot army. Gliding in straight lines on a grid, separated from workers by chain-link fencing with signs warning people to keep out, the machines can lift and carry up to 750 pounds of retail products.

Seattle-based Amazon has pushed itself to the forefront of the robotics revolution, deploying robots in 15 U.S. fulfillment centers over the past four years. It has leased a fleet of 20 jumbo jets to further speed deliveries as an estimated 54 million Americans have flocked to its two-day-delivery Prime service.

The company says its superhuman robots have created far more jobs than they’ve taken, but experts say that employment trend will reverse as machines grow increasingly sophisticated and climb ever higher on the job-skills ladder, bumping Homo sapiens to the side.

“There was very little appreciable progress (in robotics) for a long time. Now we’re in an era where that progress is occurring,” said MIT economist David Autor.

But Amazon says the advancement won’t come at its workers’ expense. Two years ago, the e-commerce titan opened the Tracy facility with 1,500 full-time, permanent employees. Now, there are more than 3,000, company spokeswoman Ashley Robinson said. The job gains here that result from automation of certain tasks are seen across Amazon’s robot-equipped warehouses, Robinson said.

“It’s all about efficiency. It’s all about getting the boxes out to customers as quickly as we can. In a building without robotics it can take hours to fulfill an order. In this building it can take minutes,” Robinson said. “We’ve been able to build our workforce in this building because the robots have allowed us to fulfill more customer demand. It allows us to keep growing and growing.” Continue reading this article

Add Sewing Robot to the Advanced Machines Being Developed for Human Worker Replacement

One of the toughest skills for automation engineers to crack is the amazing human hand with its unique dexterity — but it’s not for lack of trying.

Amazon’s highly automated warehouses have thousands of Kiva robots moving racks of merchandise around to human box packers — for now. The company is working to develop a machine that can discern, grasp and pack objects through its yearly Amazon Picking Challenge, a contest for robot designers to create the the next major step in human worker replacement.

Meanwhile, sewing presents a similar problem because clothing construction is almost completely based on manual dexterity, where the process requires handling fabrics that can vary tremendously in terms of stability, stretch, slipperiness, thickness and other qualities.

But now the brainiac engineers say they are getting close to a workable SewBot.

Add sewing to the growing list of jobs that won’t need imported immigrant workers to perform because smart machines will fill them in the future. As the following article points out, “in coming decades the gains [in automation] could add up to a significant reduction in the need for human workers in many fields.”

Another quote that should be getting attention: “By 2030, 90% of jobs as we know them today will be replaced by smart machines,” according to a 2013 report from a Gartner tech analyst.

Why isn’t automation being discussed by any of the gaggle of Presidential candidates? The workplace is being fundamentally transformed, while Washington acts as if nothing has changed and the jobless recovery is an unexplainable curiosity.

Robots Take On More-Elaborate Tasks Amid Worker Shortage, Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2015

Automation gains could reduce need for human workers in many fields

ATLANTA—In a former kitchen-cabinet workshop here, a dozen engineers are creating robots to sew garments and rugs—tasks usually relegated to low-wage workers in distant countries.

SoftWear Automation Inc., the startup that employs the engineers, promises to transform the apparel industry, automating production so goods can be made in factories anywhere by robots and small teams of people tending them.

So far, the robots can do only basic tasks, like sewing around button holes or the edges of fluffy bath rugs. They can’t do other things people are good at, such as holding together two floppy pieces of material while sewing them into a shirt. SoftWear’s SewBots can’t produce a finished garment, though the firm hopes to reach that stage next year.

The garment industry is interested in the technology, but “people are going to start small with us,” says K.P. Reddy, SoftWear’s CEO. “It’s going to be incremental.”

The same can be said for many potential applications of robots, 3-D printers and other forms of automation, ranging from the assembly of myriad consumer goods to caring for the elderly. Though progress has been incremental so far, in coming decades the gains could add up to a significant reduction in the need for human workers in many fields.

“By 2030, 90% of jobs as we know them today will be replaced by smart machines,” three analysts from the research firm Gartner Inc. wrote in a 2013 report. They defined smart machines as ones doing things previously thought doable only by people, such as learning from experience. Machines, they said, “are evolving from automating basic tasks to becoming advanced self-learning systems mimicking the human brain.”

By 2050, such machines are likely to “do every job that we presently do,” says Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford University and frequent writer on technological trends. “The more I look forward, the more convinced I am that jobs won’t be about sustenance any more. Since everything will be so cheap, our jobs will be about knowledge and the arts. This is what will keep us busy.”

The most common tasks for industrial robots today include heavy lifting, welding and applying glue, paint and other coatings. Robots can lift heavier weights than people and are far more precise. Unlike people, they can be relied on to do exactly what they are told. They also can work around the clock. Continue reading this article

Amazon Doubles the Number of Kiva Warehouse Robots

Christmas is coming, and the online shopping megastore is revving up to send packages even faster by increasing the number of robot warehouse transporters from 15,000 at the end of last year to 30,000 now in its 13 “fulfillment centers.” The company believes that more of the amazing Kiva robots will enable it to ship its increasing volume of merchandise more rapidly.

KivaRobotHeadlight

Interestingly, Amazon is hiring up a storm, even with the added automation, although you have to wonder how many workers would be needed if there were no robots. The company added 39,300 employees during the most recent quarter and total workforce stands at 222,400.

The increased hiring looks like it will be temporary over the longer term, however, because Amazon is working to develop a picker robot that can discern, grasp and pack various objects, which is the job that humans perform now. The Amazon Picking Challenge is a yearly competition to develop a machine that can replace the humans, and Hitachi already has a potential contender.

America’s economy is still losing jobs all the time to automation, a trend that was accelerated by the recession, where millions of jobs were lost to smart machines.

Certainly given the automated future of the industrialized world and its shrinking jobs universe, neither America nor Europe needs to import immigrant workers. For example, the tech researcher firm Gartner estimates that one-third of jobs will be done by smart machines by 2025.

Furthermore, adding millions to the jobless angry underclass makes civil unrest far more likely. Wouldn’t it be better to avoid future Ferguson-style riots in Spanish by seriously decreasing immigration?

Get your Amazon packages shipped to your home faster thanks to 30,000 Kiva robots, New York Daily News, October 26, 2015

Amazon Robotics, formerly Kiva Systems, now has 30,000 robots working in 13 of its fulfillment centers across the country.

Amazon will now have your orders delivered twice as fast thanks to its robot army — which is now 30,000 strong.

The Seattle-based e-commerce company bought Kiva Systems for $775 million back in 2012, and the number of robots working across 13 of its fulfillment centers had increased to 15,000 by the end of 2014, according to VentureBeat. Continue reading this article

Human Workers Are Expected to Adjust to Robot ‘Colleagues’

People in the business of adding automation and subtracting humans from the workplace claim to be concerned about whether the remaining humans are happy with the arrangement. Certainly companies want customers to be comfortable when in direct contact with smart machines, but the opinion of average workers probably counts for sub-zero in the big offices.

One of the companies mentioned in the article below is Amazon, which has been expanding robotics in processing items to be shipped to customers from ultra-modern warehouses. Below is a tour of the company’s newish Robbinsville NJ “fulfillment center” that covers 1.2 million square feet — around 27 acres.

Humans are still an important part of the process, largely because of the manual dexterity needed to pick up all shapes of objects and pack them into boxes. But robot engineers are working on a machine for that, spurred on by the company-sponsored competition, the Amazon Picking Challenge. The Hitachi packing robot has advanced dexterity skills, and may be the next step to a completely automated warehouse.

Below, Kiva robots operate from a computer system that tracks and moves everything in the warehouse. They scoot under mobile racks of merchandise and move needed items to packing stations run by humans.

Automation, software and robots are improving at breakneck speed, increasing in capabilities that would have been thought to be science-fiction a few years ago.

A 2013 investigation by the Associated Press found that good jobs lost in the economic downturn aren’t coming back: Millions Of Middle-Class Jobs Killed By Machines In Great Recession’s Wake. Companies chose to become more “efficient” by laying human workers off and substituting smart machines for a range of employment from farm pickers to educated office workers.

Experts see even more jobs lost, such as the 2013 Oxford University study that predicted nearly half of US employment was vulnerable to machine replacement in 20 years. During a Labor Day interview on CBS News, NYU Professor Gary Marcus remarked, “Eventually I think most jobs will be replaced, like 75 or 80 percent of the people are not going to work for a living.”

Nevertheless, automatic immigration continues along as if the workplace weren’t fundamentally changing. Washington is snoozing through this sea change, with no debate about the shrinking need for workers. Given the increasingly automated future, the correct number of immigrant workers is ZERO.

Are You Ready for a Robot Colleague?, MIT Technology Review, By Will Knight, September 28, 2015

Robots are moving into new areas of work, and it isn’t entirely clear how staff and customers will react.

Those who work in professions from warehouse staff to hotel concierges may soon count a robot among their colleagues.

While Amazon has pioneered the use of robots in its fulfillment centers, its robots are still largely separated from human workers (see “Inside Amazon”). The next generation of workplace bots will work in much closer proximity to regular employees. Some will replace workers entirely, but most will simply take on the more mundane tasks of a human’s job. Continue reading this article

Amazon Explores Next Step in Automated Warehouses -- Bye Bye Human Workers!

In February, I wrote about Amazon’s new “fulfillment centers” that featured increased use of robots: “North Texas: Amazon.com Promotes Its Semi-Automated Warehouses.” Managers assured the public and new local employees that the smart machines “help” humans do the heavy lifting and boring stuff that the workers don’t want to do.

We’ve heard that kind of language before, particularly regarding a dubious “need” for immigrant workers — that they do jobs Americans don’t want to do. It was once the case that workers were paid more for difficult, dangerous or unpleasant jobs, like meatpacking (which once provided middle class jobs for citizens), but no longer. That social contract has been ripped to shreds because of the globalized forces of outsourcing and mass immigration, and smart machines are coming on strong.

These days the Amazon company depends on its amazing Kiva system of warehouse robots to locate and move goods to humans who do the picking and packing.

The History Channel explained Kiva robots:

Now Amazon is sponsoring a contest to be held in May to find a robot that can discern, grasp and pack all sorts of objects. Amazon is looking for the next money-saving automation that will cut labor costs and lessen the company’s need for human workers who require paychecks and lunch breaks.

A search of Youtube for Amazon Picking Challenge brings up an assortment of application videos like the following:

Below, today’s increasingly dexterous robots can shoot pool [Watch].

Given the expanded used of computers, robots and automation, America’s future need for immigrant workers is ZERO.

Amazon Robot Contest May Accelerate Warehouse Automation, Technology Review, By Will Knight, March 25, 2015

Robots will use the latest computer-vision and machine-learning algorithms to try to perform the work done by humans in vast fulfillment centers.

Packets of Oreos, boxes of crayons, and squeaky dog toys will test the limits of robot vision and manipulation in a competition this May. Amazon is organizing the event to spur the development of more nimble-fingered product-packing machines.

Participating robots will earn points by locating products sitting somewhere on a stack of shelves, retrieving them safely, and then packing them into cardboard shipping boxes. Robots that accidentally crush a cookie or drop a toy will have points deducted. The people whose robots earn the most points will win $25,000.

Amazon has already automated some of the work done in its vast fulfillment centers. Robots in a few locations send shelves laden with products over to human workers who then grab and package them. These mobile robots, made by Kiva Systems, a company that Amazon bought in 2012 for $678 million, reduce the distance human workers have to walk in order to find products. However, no robot can yet pick and pack products with the speed and reliability of a human. Industrial robots that are already widespread in several industries are limited to extremely precise, repetitive work in highly controlled environments. Continue reading this article