With some pride, the amazon announced the Sparrow, a robot that uses artificial intelligence to separate individual products from inventory. According to the company, the novelty will support the work of its employees. But among them, the mood is not one of celebration. There are fears that this is yet another case of technology “stealing” jobs.
Amazon already has plenty of automation and robotics in its warehouses. But there’s always room for more. Sparrow was touted as a robotic arm that can “detect, sort and manipulate individual products” in the company’s inventory.
Once this work is done, the products can be packaged and then shipped to buyers. It’s not a simple process. In 2021 alone, Amazon warehouses around the world moved around 5 billion packages, which corresponds to just over 13 million volumes per day.
Details on how the robot works have not been released. At least Amazon explained that Sparrow uses computer vision — field of artificial intelligence that processes visual data — to recognize and deal with products. Millions of them.
The robotic arm is part of Amazon’s efforts to automate its operations as much as possible. The company points to two advantages. The first: Sparrow will take on repetitive tasks, leaving employees free for other tasks and safer. The second: what novelty will contribute to speed up the delivery of products.
What’s the problem then?
By logic, the Sparrow’s official announcement it should only deal with the robot, but Amazon also highlighted an “investment” in its employees there. It’s as if the company knew that revealing the technology would raise questions about employability and tried to appease those feelings.
It didn’t help. The newspaper Business Insider heard from an Amazon employee that the Sparrow is “going to take my work”. Also according to the vehicle, in forums dedicated to workers in the company’s warehouses, there is a discussion about the robotic arm leaving the sheds “silent”, with only small teams to repair the robots.
Overkill? Perhaps. But officials have reason to be concerned. Historically, automation has been associated with a decrease in jobs in various segments of the industry.
Also, as the e-commerce giant that it is, Amazon employs a lot of people in its warehouses. There are more than 750,000 people in the United States alone. It is conceivable that the company wants to reduce this number in order to reduce costs.
Jobs are not at risk
Well, that’s the message Amazon is trying to get across. In Sparrow’s announcement, the company states that, since it started to invest in robotics and technology, it has generated more than 700 job categories.
Linked to these vacancies is a qualification program focused on mechatronics and robotics. “After completing the internship, employees’ salaries increase by around 40% among program participants”, adds the company.
The mention of the qualification program makes it clear that, despite fears, Amazon is not willing to back down on its structural modernization plan. The company argues that automation even helps improve employee safety.
But there are controversies about the last aspect. O Business Insider draws attention to a report published in 2020 which reveals that Amazon robotic warehouse workers suffer more injuries than those working in non-robot warehouses.
Why: Employees try to keep pace with the robots, which move faster than any human.
Sparrow recognize 65% of products
For now, Sparrow is being tested at an Amazon warehouse in Texas. The company plans to put more units into operation from 2023, although it has some challenges to do so, such as adapting warehouses.
Although not yet officially finalized, it is known that the robotic arm is already capable of detecting about 65% of Amazon products.
When fully in use, the robot will have to select items with different sizes and shapes, move them between boxes using suction cups and, with that, separate them for shipping or return to stocks.