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Robots are not people and AI is not taking your job

While Amazon is one of the most well known global brands, they are secretive about sharing what happens inside the fulfillment centers that our smiling packages come from. Similar to how the Amazon Web Services have given glimpses into the technologies that enable its cloud services, the new reMARS show (Machine Learning, Automation, Robotics, Space) gave a peek behind the curtain of the drivers of Amazon’s technology. Jeff Wilke, CEO of WorldWide Consumer at Amazon (basically everything that isn’t Andy Jassy’s AWS, but not including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin) highlighted that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are a foundational layer for the consumer business, and much of this technology comes from AWS offerings. I also examined how the latest in robotics, AI, and space that is being leveraged by hyperscale companies like Amazon will impact enterprise organizations and its workforce.

Since 2012, Amazon has deployed 200,000 robots in its fulfillment centers; during the same time, they have hired 300,000 people. Jeff Wilke stated that he is a fan of Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT, who wrote “Racing with the Machines” with Andy McAfee (see interviews with them from the Second Machine Age on theCUBE) which states that the successful companies in the future will have found ways to capitalize on machines and people working closely together. People still feel a bit of existential dread that robots and AI will take their jobs or attack us based on Terminator and Black Mirror dystopian views of the world. It can be a little unnerving to see Spot from Boston Dynamics coming towards you:

Kate Darling from the MIT Media Lab (see her TED Talk) shared that it is natural for us to anthropomorphize robots, but this can complicate our feelings as they come into the workplace. Her recommendation is that we should compare robots and AI with animals, which we have used for work, weaponry, and companionship for millennia. Today we treat most animals like tools and products, and some as companions; robots should be the same. In a separate talk, Andrew Ng (a major contributor to AI/ML and co-founder of Coursera) said that the role of AI and ML is to automate tasks, not jobs. He highlighted that while data and compute originally drove AI, it is now talent, ideas, and tools. Like the software robots of RPA, physical robots can help with the reliability of tasks that are repetitive, dangerous, or boring. While not every company will need physical robots, AWS created Deep Racer to help make learning the skills of ML fun (see video below with Andy Jassy discussing Deep Racer). AI, ML, and robots can deliver speed and scale that humans cannot do on their own.

One of the big trends over the last ten years has been the democratization of technologies that in the past only countries or the largest global companies could leverage. Cloud computing is of course one of the platforms for the availability of technology. Last year, AWS Ground Station was announced to simplify satellite communication (see video below with Randall Hunt of AWS). At re:MARS, the technology presentations were not about far-off futures, rather what can be done today or very soon. The mission of Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is to have millions of people living and working in space. Reusable rockets and resources in space are the primary hurdles that they see. One presentation from Lockheed Martin showed their SPACECLOUD technology, which will leverage multi-level satellites, enabling Gb communication. Lockheed stated that the satellites will be more than communication;  compute, storage, and basic processing bring a whole new dimension when we talk about edge computing.

While the conference did a good job of showing some amazing things that are possible, it was very grounded about where we are and the work still to be done. There are many technologies that consumers and corporations can find value in today, and many startups and large initiatives that are hiring. While many have concerns over Amazon’s tremendous market power — and using AWS will increase this market position — AWS allows users to leverage many of the underlying technologies that enable the speed and scale that make Amazon successful today.


AWS Deep Racer and Ground Station

Photo credit: Stuart Miniman

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