Aldo Agostinelli

According to the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport within the next five years 54% of the UK logistic businesses will have to face a serious lack of both skilled and unskilled staff. The reasons of such phenomenon are various: it has become quite difficult to recruit expert professionals, for instance IT engineers with specific know-how in the logistic field, as well as project managers and managers in general; at the same time, also unskilled labour is missing, especially warehouse operators, also due to the fact that, it is worth pointing it out – salaries are really low, the job itself is quite repetitive and boring and, last but not least, unemployment rates are finally decreasing. That is to say that, if people can choose, they logically prefer to pick jobs with better career opportunities and more stability (UK Logistics Monitor 2019).

According to several experts, the situation is more or less the same in Europe and in the US. Therefore, while it is still difficult to say whether robots may actually steal precious employment opportunities from humans, it has been argued that sooner or later they may start doing all those works humans are neglecting.

It is no surprise,though: nowadays, industrial robotics is the automation sector which has recorded the fastest and highest growth. Back in 2018 it was worth 16,5 billion dollars and the International Federation of Robotics forecast a boom in the related investments and an average growth of 12% from 2020 to 2022 (Industrial robots: a market worth 16,5 billion dollars).

The Verge reports the case of the AI and robotics start up Covariant. Its robots (just a few units at the moment) are being used by several companies in their warehouses. They can pick and package about 10.000 different items with an accuracy rate of about 99%,  regardless their shape and size. Instead of robotic fingers they have some suckers which may be less elegant than other previous solutions but can solve a relevant issue: the robots ability to grab objects. I am not going to get deeper into such issue, still, several scientists have confirmed it is a rather complex one.

Another tough matter is the robots ability to identify objects. This is such a complex problem that Amazon, for whom the handling of warehouses is a primary issue, in the hope of finding a final automated solution, has organized an annual competition among startups, entitled the Amazon Picking Challenge.

However, AI and Machine Learning have made the real difference between old generation and new generation robots. And thanks to machine learning, the Californian company can boast the most advanced robots in the market. Just a showoff? Maybe. But private investors such as Jeff Dean, Google AI manager, Yann LeCun, head of  Facebook AI research department and Geoffrey Hinton, one of the greatest AI experts in the world, actually believe it (AI-powered robot pickers will be the next big work revolution in warehouses).

After having undergone a forced learning process – a trial and error system ( a robot is ordered to carry out a task such as “move x to z” and is expected to independently find a way to do it and then repeat the action for thousands of hours ), one of Coveriant artificial creatures started working at the conveyor belt in the German industrial components e-commerce warehouse Obeta. The result is, quote, “a robot which picks objects from boxes as well as a chicken can pick corn”.

Then, tech companies new target is making these robots progress so fast as to enable them to replace humans in the performance of the heaviest and most tedious tasks inside warehouses. And we are not talking about stealing jobs since companies which have “hired” these machines are already looking for new staff to check and maintain them. Robots have to perform heavy tasks while people will be supervising them.

In which fields would you like robots to be employed and why? Tweet @agostinellialdo.

To find out more about the digital world, you may read my latest book entitled: “People Are Media” 

If you liked this post, you may also read “Industry 4.0 is investing in adaptive robots. And it is taking off  .

Aldo Agostinelli