Is Automation Actually a Job Killer?

TRACY -- Thousands of employees work at the 1 million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy. But there are many more, who don’t get paid for the work they do.

Hundreds of automated machines roving around the fulfillment center can transport a vertical shelf of items up to 750 pounds. They roam the gigantic building on a precalculated route, using floor sensors. It’s artificial assistance, that has drastically changed how much product Amazon can bring in and ship out.

“Amazon robotics units enable us to have 50 percent more inventory here in this facility,” Amazon spokesperson Ashley Robinson said.

The online shopping giant loves these little robots so much, that five years ago, Amazon bought the company that makes them -- Kiva systems. While it may seem that bots have replaced human employees in Tracy, Amazon says they’ve actually led to more human jobs.

“When this facility opened in 2014, we expected we’d be able to create 1000 full-time hour positions,” explained Robinson. "But because of our ability to meet customer demand and exceed expectations, we have been able to increase our workforce to 3000 hourly associates.”

Seventy-five miles away from the Tracy fulfillment center, Dr. David Slaughter of UC Davis is developing a robot he hopes will change the future of agriculture.

“This is the next evolution in agriculture,” Dr. Slaughter told FOX40.

It’s called a phenotype robot. Designed by Dr. Slaughter, a robotics professor, and his team, the machine comes equipped with stereo cameras that can measure how a plant is growing. Using data that comes in the form of a 3-D model, the robot creates an extremely thorough check of the plant’s health, and its ability to flourish in different environments. This robot can answer questions about the plant better than a human eye ever could.

“What are the leaf angles? How is the sun getting in? How many fruit are there? That’s all being done manually now with rulers, or people observing,” Dr. Slaughter told FOX40.

The phenotype is currently awaiting the summer for more trials, with companies like Monsanto very intrigued by its capabilities. Soon, it will do what human researchers are currently doing, only better. So does that mean someday robots will replace us humans? Probably not, according to research expert Matt Lieberman.

“Who’s going to control the bots?” questioned Lieberman. “Who’s going to train them and improve upon them? Who is going to connect robot one to robot two?”

Lieberman’s marketing department at PricewaterhouseCoopers just surveyed 2,500 consumers and businesses around the country about artificial intelligence in the workplace. He says the response shows a warm reception to A.I. 62% of people say robots are critical for “solving problems in modern societies”. However, the data shows that robots are only getting approval from those surveyed if humans are also in the mix.

“One of the main conclusions to the survey is there is no bright future for businesses with all bots, or all humans -- but really, that strategic partnership between humans and robots," said Lieberman.

For Dr. Slaughter, it’s not about taking away jobs. Instead, it’s about reinventing job roles, for future careers, and the future in general.

“We have the responsibility as a society both to feed the 2 billion people that will be joining us in the next 33 years, as well as trying to find a way for all those involved in ag to have rewarding careers,” said Dr. Slaughter.