Is Safety a Problem for Amazon’s Robot Army?

robot army

Like any business empire, Amazon’s success is built on daring to try new things. Of course, with every daring new thing comes risk. Sometimes this risk is simply monetary, sometimes it is a risk to the company’s reputation, but sometimes it is risk in the most basic sense: safety.

This is something which I’ve noticed as an inspector who specialises in ensuring the safety of warehouses. Yet, it’s also something which becomes more noticeable the more you consider the way Amazon operates.

As of 2017, Amazon’s robot workforce is 45,000 strong, which is an increase of 50% from January 2016. Its robot army is growing in number, as well as doing more work, more often and on a wider variety of tasks. With such rapid expansion, however, lawmakers and health and safety experts have struggled to keep up.

Its fleet of drones remain grounded by current safety legislation which does not permit the use of unmanned drones for commercial purposes, but no such law has stopped its warehouses from being operated by yet more robots. It could well be that these robots are safe. Yet, without a law or any health and safety guidance on what robot workers should and should not be able to do, we have no way of knowing.

This is not an issue which Amazon alone has had to deal with. In the world of big tech, “disruption” is a popular and pervasive idea. Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, and many other Silicon Valley giants are proud “disrupters” who make money by operating in legal grey areas with radical technologies and radical ideas.

Disruption is an idea which has been met with criticism by lawmakers. Though, for Amazon, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. The company is developing technology which — by and large — is well within the law. The issue is the extent to which it is making this technology and the extent to which the law and safety protocol as it stands can cope.

To understand how Amazon wound up in this position on the frontier of the future of the workforce, we need to take a step back.

Amazon Always Thinks Big and Fast

It’s easy to imagine the way we shop online today as the best and only way to do it. However, almost everything about the online shopping experience can be traced back to Amazon.

That’s no exaggeration, either. When people talk about the effect of eCommerce on the economy, most of the time they are talking about Amazon. The global internet giant currently makes up 34% of all online sales, but some experts expect this market share to rise to 50% by 2021.

This isn’t necessarily bad news for other eCommerce businesses. The growth of Amazon will mean the growth of the entire eCommerce sector. What’s good for eCommerce tends to be good for Amazon and what’s good for Amazon tends to be good for eCommerce.

This won’t always be the case — it isn’t always the case now — but the eCommerce industry remains relatively new. As such, it’s not an industry which needs to compete with itself because there’s still so much to gain from competing with the bricks and mortar high street instead.

Being at the forefront of an entire industry, Amazon has made some bold moves. It’s been known to lobby DC politicians in order to get its way. Yet, even before it had the clout it does today, it was punching far above its weight.

When Amazon was just a fledgeling eCommerce startup, it made money not by being a profitable company but through attracting a huge amount of investment. Amazon believed in its ideas and its future so much that the company went into billions of dollars of debt over and over again.

After nearly a decade in business, Amazon made its first full year of profit in 2004. Another 10 years later and the company was still struggling towards profitability. Now, in 2017, Amazon has finally begun to deliver on its lofty promises with profitable quarter after profitable quarter.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that Amazon isn’t afraid to gamble on big dreams. Even if Amazon’s venture into automation sends the company into the red financially, its investors likely won’t care. Investors in Amazon are able to see the world just as Amazon does.

With an Amazon-tinted view of the world, it’s easy to see a future of automated labour. The short-term losses Amazon will rack up trying to build this future won’t bother its investors. They are looking towards 2021 the same way investors in 2014 looked towards now.

What Does a Robot Workforce Mean?

You might imagine that we’ve always had robot workforces. When car factories started using machines to speed up their engineering process in the past, people imagined that the future would look much like that. Big, dumb, clumsy robots doing the manual labour which humans didn’t want to do anyway.

Many commentators have noted that this round of automation is different. We’re not talking about speeding up the work process with a handful of robots that can only do one task under constant human supervision. We’re talking about lots of robots — 45,000 in Amazon’s case — who are capable of doing increasingly complex tasks.

The worry that these robots might take human jobs is there, but it remains a far-off possibility rather than an immediate worry. As of right now, Amazon’s robot workforce makes the company more efficient. This is helping to create more highly skilled jobs for more people. In other words, as robots get promoted to more complex tasks, so too do their human co-workers.

Not All Inspections Are Created Equal

A more immediate concern with such a drastic change to Amazon’s workforce is its safety. With so many new machines entering Amazon’s warehouse at such a fast rate, there’s no existing protocol to ensure that these machines are safe.

In the UK, the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER) 1998 recommends annual work equipment inspections. According to the Construction and Design Management (CDM) Regulations 2015, these yearly inspections should be completed by someone “competent”.

Defining “competency” is different in different sectors. For the sector I work in, annual warehouse safety inspections should be performed by SEMA approved racking inspectors as per HSE’s recommendations.

But for a fleet of Amazon robots? The only people qualified enough to inspect those robots would be from Amazon itself. While it’s important to have internal safety inspections performed by people within the company, you also need external, third-party safety inspections.

The latter allows for independence and objectivity that can’t be achieved by inspections from the company’s own staff. While it’s true that any company rolling out new technology is going to have this same issue with regards to safety inspections, what makes Amazon unique is the blistering speed at which this new technology is being rolled out.

Questions for the Future

Amazon’s present state of affairs poses a lot of questions, but the questions multiply exponentially when you consider the near and distant future. For now, Amazon’s robot workforce wouldn’t legally be considered a workforce at all. In the UK, the inspection and maintenance of Amazon’s team of robots come under PUWER 1998. In other words, Amazon’s robots are work equipment, not a workforce.

However, at what point does a piece of work equipment become an employee? It sounds like a bizarre question until you consider the fact that one robot has very recently been given Saudi Arabian citizenship. While the whole thing is likely a publicity stunt, it raises very real questions about the role we want robots to play in society.

The question of artificial intelligence is especially important for Amazon as it is one of the companies on the forefront of artificial intelligence. The ethical and philosophical questions raised by all this are interesting, but there are pragmatic things to consider as well.

For example, should Amazon’s artificial intelligence get smart enough, would it not make more sense to give it the job of safety inspector? After all, a robot would likely be the most qualified to keep tabs on the work of another robot.

This question raises further questions, though. If we are to give the job of safety inspection to artificial intelligence, who is responsible for an inspection not being performed properly? As it currently stands, the law would suggest that the person in charge of the equipment is responsible. However, the more that artificial intelligence is able to perform safety inspections, the less sense this makes.

The answers to all of these questions might be decades away, or they might be years away. It’s hard to say for sure. What is for certain is that no other business in the world is closer to realising a future of an artificially intelligent and automated workforce than Amazon.

As such, Amazon is both the subject and the leader of a great human experiment in how practical, safe, and ethical a robot workforce is. The laws of the future will likely be written off the back of Amazon’s business practices. They may be written in response to something going wrong, they may be written because a government caught wind of a trend, or they may be written under the influence of Amazon’s aforementioned lobbying.

In 2012, Amazon’s future was somewhat uncertain. The company was growing and growing well, but it was also surrounded by competition. In 2017, the question is not whether Amazon will succeed in the future. The question is what the world will look like as a result of Amazon’s success. The question is how safe Amazon’s robot workforce will be.

Bio: Justin O’Sullivan is a safety expert, SEMA approved racking inspector, and the owner and founder of his own racking inspection business. Justin’s work mostly involves delivering racking inspections and racking inspection training to small to medium businesses across the UK and Ireland.