Scouting out the next wave of robot workers

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Digit drew a crowd, even here, in a convention center full of robot aficionados.

A humanoid warehouse worker, Digit walked upright on goatlike legs and grabbed bins off a shelf with muscular arms made from aerospace-grade aluminum. It then placed the boxes on an assembly line and walked back to the shelf to search for more. The crowd, which had assembled at ProMat, the premier trade show for the manufacturing and supply chain industry, held up phones and watched, a little quiet, wondering if at some point the robot would teeter and fall. It did not.

Digit, made by Oregon-based Agility Robotics, is the kind of technology that people have worried about for generations: a machine with the strength and adroitness to rival our own, and the ability to take our jobs, or much worse. Then ChatGPT came online, and suddenly the fear was of something smarter rather than stronger — malevolent bots rather than metallic brutes.

The automaton is still coming. It might not be ready to take over the Amazon warehouse yet, but the long-anticipated robot revolution has begun, accelerated in large part by the pandemic and the thunderous growth of e-commerce. Machines like Digit are ready to take over a vast swath of physical labor, from operating forklifts to doing the laundry.

Ron Kyslinger thinks this is a good thing. Kyslinger, an engineer who has spearheaded automation for some of the largest retailers in the world, including Amazon and Walmart, is passionate about the potential of robots to improve the quality of life for workers. Robots free humans from boredom, repetition, physical strain and productivity limits that can put their jobs at risk, he believes. He also believes that Americans have a prejudice against automation because of movies like “The Terminator,” inhibiting them from adapting to technology in ways both beneficial and inevitable.

Kyslinger, 56, is currently a consultant for companies hoping to increase automation, and his services are in high demand. Known for his ability to see the big picture not just in a warehouse full of whirring machines but across the global landscape of automation, he is blunt and methodical, and can be somewhat robotic himself in his personal manner. He is often hired to diagnose problems and tell a board or CEO how it really is.

And how it really is right now, in Kyslinger’s opinion, is that the world is on the brink of enormous changes when it comes to the presence of robots at work.

“I don’t think people really understand where we are,” he told me. “We’re just scratching the surface.”

Use of robots by big brands, retailers and movers of goods accelerated significantly after 2019. According to the Association for Advancing Automation, robot orders in North America jumped 42% during the pandemic after essentially being flat over the previous five years.

The shift has taken place largely out of sight, inside an archipelago of windowless warehouses across the Southeast and Midwest, helping companies to avoid inflaming the taboo against replacing human workers with machines. Some are reluctant to even discuss automation.

Americans have long felt ambivalent toward automation. The country that invented such job-killers as the dishwasher and the combine also produced the likes of Philip K. Dick and James Cameron, artists whose dystopian visions helped breed lasting anxiety toward robots.

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