“Human” Automation

Job Description of a “Picker” in an Amazon warehouse (via the FT):

The last group, the “pickers”, push trolleys around and pick out customers’ orders from the aisles. Amazon’s software calculates the most efficient walking route to collect all the items to fill a trolley, and then simply directs the worker from one shelf space to the next via instructions on the screen of the handheld satnav device….“You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form,” said the Amazon manager. “It’s human automation, if you like.” Amazon recently bought a robot company, but says it still expects to keep plenty of humans around because they are so much better at coping with the vast array of differently shaped products the company sells.

The bolded line touches upon a theme I have analysed many times, most recently in the essay ‘Technological Unemployment Amidst Stagnation’:

Many routine jobs that have provided avenues of mass employment during the twentieth century have typically been jobs requiring the use of human sensory and motor skills, skills that have proven hardest to automate. This phenomenon is known as ‘Moravec’s Paradox’ named after the artificial intelligence researcher Hans Moravec who observed that those skills we typically identify with intelligence (e.g. rational decision making) tend to be the skills that are easiest to replicate via an artificial intelligence (a combination of data and algorithms). But those skills that even a baby possesses, such as the ability to move around complex environments and pick up a variety of objects, tend to be the hardest to replicate in a robot. In a way some of what separates from the machines is what unites us with the animals.

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