This July, Amazon showed off several new warehouse robots with names borrowed from Sesame Street that are, presumably, meant to evoke childhood wonder rather than futuristic dread.
Bert, a wheeled robot about the size of a filing cabinet, navigates around a warehouse carrying products. Ernie, a large industrial robot arm, moves totes filled with packages from conveyors onto shelves. Scooter and Kermit are both intelligent forklifts, capable of pulling several carts or stacks of plastic totes from one side of a warehouse to another.
The new machines demonstrate the potential for automation to creep into more areas of warehouse and package-sorting work, a critical part of the economy as ecommerce orders soar. Competitors like Walmart and FedEx are also rushing to adopt robots. It might seem that machines are poised to take over in warehouses—and help make up for a dire shortage of human workers. The transportation and warehousing industries had a record 490,000 job openings in the US in July 2021, a shortfall that will be felt especially during the ordering and fulfillment crunch of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
But not so fast. A rush to adopt more automation does not mean that artificial intelligence and robots will solve the worker shortage. Amazon's prototype robots are not yet capable of doing the most challenging, and important, work inside its fulfillment centers: picking the many products stored on its shelves. They're simply not smart enough.
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