Those pesky humans

Amazon’s nascent plan to replace workers with robots

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Reducing workers to automatons is not the end of Jeff Bezos’ reprogramming of work and workers: It looks as though he wants to replace us pesky humans altogether.

Last year, he announced that “Amazon Prime Air” is in the works—a fleet of drones to deliver goods, gizmos and gadgets to premium customers within 30 minutes after placing their must-have-now orders. And that’s only phase one of his grand automation machination. Phase two is to take advantage of recent advances in artificial intelligence and ultimately replace all floor workers with robots.

Far-fetched? In 2012, Amazon bought Kiva Systems Inc., a leading developer and installer of robotic warehouse systems. Guided by the central computer, hundreds of Kiva robots can glide seamlessly through the aisles to pluck the items. And they don’t do lunch or take breaks (though they do require air-conditioning). For Bezos, robots would eliminate the inconvenient need for any human touch. Last November, Amazon placed 1,382 Kiva robots on the floors of three of its warehouses. In addition, Amazon/Kiva is developing automated fulfillment systems for such other retail giants as The Gap, Staples and Walgreens.

You could say that since there’s no humanity in Amazon warehouse jobs anyway, who cares? Well, those who have nowhere else to go do care. It’s a barren and wretched social vision that posits a choice of abusive jobs or no jobs at all.