Alibaba’s Robot Warehouse

Here is a short video from Business Insider UK about Alibaba’s robotic warehouse.

Who is Alibaba?  According to Wikipedia:

With operations in over 200 countries and territories, Alibaba is the world’s largest retailer and e-commerce company, one of the largest Internet and AI companies, one of the biggest venture capital firms, and one of the biggest investment corporations in the world. The company hosts the largest B2B (Alibaba.com), C2C (Taobao), and B2C (Tmall) marketplaces in the world. Its online sales and profits surpassed all US retailers (including Walmart, Amazon and eBay) combined since 2015. It has been expanding into the media industry, with revenues rising by triple percentage points year on year.

The robots, which can lift up to 500 kg, pick up densely packed bins and bring them to human pickers who place the products in boxes for shipment to customers.  The robots are controlled over Wi-Fi.  They say that after the 60 robots were placed into service, throughput in the warehouse has been tripled and human labour reduced by 70%.

Amazon has been running a robotics challenge to try to eliminate the human pickers.  This is a video summarising the  2017 challenge in Nagoya, Japan.

Here is a video from the MIT team from the 2017 competition.

The Roaring Twenties are 314 days away.

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Author: John Walker

Founder of Ratburger.org, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of www.fourmilab.ch.

7 thoughts on “Alibaba’s Robot Warehouse”

  1. I wonder how they make sure these things are not top heavy. The shelves look they could fall over easily. If they did that could take some time to fix things.

    These look like over grown iRobot Roombas. They must be electric with a charging station to top off  their batteries. They must have sensors that know when another robot is near. Is there a cleaning robot to take of debris and dirt for clean floors are a must.

    I haven’t been following this but warehouses without pallets seem strange.

    Can robots be bribed? I am asking for a “friend”.

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  2. As recently as five decades ago there were longshoreman jobs in the warehouse district.   An illiterate man could make a living there, and even feed a family, though not well, at the lower level of “the working poor.”

    Those jobs are gone.   Now every warehouse job (including the custodian) requires a high school diploma.   Most require a two-year college certificate.   Forklift drivers are wielding tablet computers and barcode reader wands.

    In just a few years those jobs will disappear.   There will be four two-million square foot warehouses in a pod, where each one only employs security guards, and a single front office with two part-time employees;  one to maintain the computer networks and one to service the robots.

    What are we going to do to occupy all those people who cannot find jobs?   In these warehouses, the custodian will only swing by to clean the bathrooms, which won’t get much use.   Every other position is filled, or will be filled, by a robot.

    FedEx delivery vehicles will be robots.   The pizza delivery will be by robot.

    When none of those people can find work, how are we going to fulfill AOC’s promise of a living wage with bennies?

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  3. MJBubba:
    What are we going to do to occupy all those people who cannot find jobs? In these warehouses, the custodian will only swing by to clean the bathrooms, which won’t get much use. Every other position is filled, or will be filled, by a robot.

    FedEx delivery vehicles will be robots. The pizza delivery will be by robot.

    This concern about the robots is overblown. AI is simply not progressing at the rate that people have predicted, and the worries about the robopocalypse are based on those predictions. If and when the robots are that good, presumably humans will have to work less to earn a living. Keep in mind that the 40-hour work week is a relatively recent innovation. People used to have to work much longer to earn a much crappier living.

    The following video makes a good case for the robopocalypse. It’s five years old and we’re not much closer to autonomous vehicles today. (Discussion of self-driving cars begins at 5:00) The video claims self-driving cars are already better than human drivers, an assertion which was proven false in 2017/2018.

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  4. drlorentz:
    If and when the robots are that good, presumably humans will have to work less to earn a living.

    Not so fast.   Humans that own robots, or who can leverage robots to enhance the value of their efforts, will be able to work less.   Everyone else will work more.

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  5. Robots that work in controlled environments like warehouses are coming on much faster than self-driving cars.

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  6. MJBubba:

    drlorentz:
    If and when the robots are that good, presumably humans will have to work less to earn a living.

    Not so fast.   Humans that own robots, or who can leverage robots to enhance the value of their efforts, will be able to work less.   Everyone else will work more.

    It’s not clear that robots will be unaffordable for most people. Cars are major capital items almost everyone can own. Why shouldn’t robots eventually be as available as cars? It may take time to transition, much as it took time for everyone to afford a car.

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