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Amazon's robot competition shows why human warehouse jobs are safe for now

Amazon's robot competition shows why human warehouse jobs are safe for now


Entrants prove less efficient than real people, but they're getting smarter

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Amazon's autonomous robots are pretty good about finding your just-ordered items just about anywhere in the company's massive fulfillment centers, but picking them up off a shelf remains a far greater challenge for the machines. So in the interest of improving upon warehouse automation, Amazon organized a "Picking Challenge" and invited entrants to build robots that do a better job at the sort of tasks that only humans can efficiently pull off — for now. The results were impressive, but also show that Amazon's factory workers don't need to worry about being rendered redundant by the bots just yet.

The robots were challenged to successfully pluck a lineup of everyday items from one of Amazon's inventory shelves and place them on a nearby table. Among the test items were a box of Oreos, tennis balls, a pencil cup, a rubber ducky, and of course some books. Entrants gained points for picking up and transferring items without incident, and lost points if robots dropped / damaged anything or failed in other ways. The winning Team RBO managed to snag 10 of the 12 items over the course of 20 minutes, enough to earn the Technical University of Berlin a top prize of $20,000.

Robots have a harder time picking up rubber ducks than us humans

According to Engadget, the winning bot combined a number of sensors that pushed its performance far above other entrants "including one for object recognition, another to find the base's position in relation to the shelf and a third one to make sure the arm didn't exert too much force when handling items." Other robots integrated lasers, pinchers, suction cups, and other retrieval methods in hopes of gaining an edge and mastering Amazon's shopping list. But even the first-place robot struggled with tiny and reflective items, and all of the machines moved at a snail's pace compared to human workers. The video above plays back at 4x speed, but it still demonstrates the wide gap pretty effectively. Still, it's fun just to watch these things analyze what's in front of them and take the best approach. Team RBO built what looks like the smartest vacuum cleaner you'll ever see.

And really, Amazon wants you to know that it has no plans to axe thousands of jobs and transfer those duties to robots. "We already have over 15,000 robots in our fulfillment centers working alongside our employees," a spokesperson told MIT Technology Review. "These technologies enhance jobs for employees, making them in many cases more efficient. Certainly the role for employees is still vital." Some participants also suggested that Amazon needs to boost its prize total significantly if the company truly expects to see breakthrough results. "If you really want strong teams, you need a bigger investment," Alberto Rodriguez, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Bloomberg. "This probably needs 10 times the money."

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