At work, with only ro­bots for com­pany

The Hamilton Spectator - - Focus - DANIELLE PA­QUE­TTE

SHANG­HAI—Inside a ware­house the size of seven foot­ball fields, hun­dreds of ro­bots pack roughly 200,000 boxes each day and ship them to cus­tomers across China. Four humans babysit.

One is Zou Rui, 25, a soft-spo­ken en­gi­neer who stands for much of his eight-hour shift in New Bal­ance sneak­ers, mon­i­tor­ing a milky white me­chan­i­cal arm. It plunges up and down like a peck­ing chicken, grab­bing parcels with a suc­tion-cupped hand and drop­ping them into con­tain­ers on a con­veyor belt.

If some­thing looks odd, Zou rushes to fix it. Oth­er­wise, he said, he jots notes in a bin­der, track­ing the arm’s per­for­mance for his re­mote bosses. Or he chats on­line with his col­leagues: two men and a woman, all about his age.

Here, Zou is far from his fam­ily’s corn­fields in the east­ern prov­ince of An­hui, far from the bus­tle of his old workspace with 100 or so peo­ple. But he doesn’t feel iso­lated.

“I don’t get lonely,” he said, “be­cause of the ro­bots.”

Zou works for the Chi­nese e-com­merce gi­ant JD.com, which lauds this ware­house on the out­skirts of Shang­hai as one of most au­to­mated in the world. An­a­lysts say it’s a peek at the fu­ture of man­ual work in China and be­yond — a place where a cho­sen few tend to the ma­chines, while most work­ers have been ren­dered ob­so­lete.

Thanks to a “strate­gic part­ner­ship” with Google, that fu­ture could be com­ing soon to the North Amer­ica.

But chief ex­ec­u­tive Richard Liu wants to take the high-tech con­cept even fur­ther in a coun­try once known as a hub for cheap labour.

“I hope my com­pany would be 100 per cent au­to­ma­tion some­day,” Liu said at an April re­tail con­fer­ence in Madrid. “No hu­man be­ings any­more.”

His fa­cil­ity near Shang­hai serves as a learn­ing lab for the com­pany — which re­ported a slim $18 mil­lion (U.S.) in profit last year on rev­enue of $55.7 bil­lion. Ex­ec­u­tives hope it will prove to be a not-so-se­cret weapon against com­peti­tors Alibaba and Ama­zon, which are also rac­ing to de­velop the next gen­er­a­tion of e-com­merce su­per ma­chines.

While in the United States on a business trip, Liu was ar­rested Aug. 31 in Min­neapo­lis on sus­pi­cion of rape. He was re­leased and no charges were filed. Liu re­turned to China and JD.com is­sued a state­ment Sept. 5 claim­ing that Min­neapo­lis po­lice found no mis­con­duct by Liu. The po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion, how­ever, re­mains open.

JD aims to per­fect its tech­nol­ogy, spread it to the firm’s 500-plus other ware­houses across China, Thai­land and In­done­sia, which still de­pend on thou­sands of peo­ple, and even­tu­ally sell the sys­tem to busi­nesses that want to shrink their own labour costs.

As of to­day, JD em­ploys about 160,000 full-time work­ers in Asia. Over the next decade, Liu said, he hopes to see that num­ber dwin­dle to “less than 8,000” bet­ter-paid staffers who work two or three hours daily.

The jobs would be “eas­ier, more fun and less dan­ger­ous,” the com­pany head said this spring.

JD signed its deal with Google in June, and Google an­nounced plans to invest $550 mil­lion in the firm.

“This marks an im­por­tant step in the process of mod­ern­iz­ing global re­tail,” JD’s chief strat­egy of­fi­cer, Jian­wen Liao, said at the time.

JD also opened its first Chi­nese gro­cery store this year with Wal­mart. Shop­pers there can pay with their smart­phones.

The part­ner­ship with Google is ex­pected to boost Google Shop­ping, a search en­gine for goods, and in­ten­sify the U.S. com­pany’s do­mes­tic ri­valry with Ama­zon, which has de­ployed more than 100,000 ro­bots of its own around the globe.

Ama­zon, which launched its robotics pro­gram in 2014, doesn’t have any fully au­to­mated ware­houses, but its ful­fil­ment cen­tres man­age a wider va­ri­ety of pack­ages than JD’s fourper­son shop does. (Ama­zon’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Jeff Be­zos, owns The Wash­ing­ton Post.)

In the ware­house where Zou works, ma­chines guided by im­age scan­ners han­dle all the goods, largely cell­phones and cam­eras and other rec­tan­gu­lar-shaped elec­tron­ics.

Pack­ages travel along a high­way of belts. Me­chan­i­cal arms sta­tioned through­out the net­work place the items on the right tracks, wrap them in plas­tic or card­board and set them onto mo­tor­ized pucks dubbed “lit­tle red men” — a nick­name in­spired by the spunky crea­tures in the Min­ions films.

The lit­tle red men carry the parcels across a floor that re­sem­bles a gi­ant checker­board and plunk them down chutes to sacks. Com­put­er­ized shelves on wheels re­trieve the loads and trans­port them to trucks, which de­liver most or­ders within 24 hours of a shop­per’s click.

Al­though peo­ple still out­per­form ro­bots on a range of tasks — lift­ing ob­jects of var­i­ous shapes and sizes, for ex­am­ple — econ­o­mists pre­dict that JD and other e-com­merce busi­nesses are lead­ing a shift that will dis­place mil­lions of work­ers world­wide in re­tail and man­u­fac­tur­ing.

“This is the kind of tech­nol­ogy I ex­pect will dis­perse ev­ery­where,” said Martin Ford, au­thor of Rise of the

Ro­bots, which ex­plores how ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence could re­shape the labour mar­ket. “It’s ab­so­lutely in­evitable that this will be a lot more disruptive than peo­ple imag­ine.”

A swath of jobs that fol­low pat­terns will van­ish, Ford said — the global con­sul­tancy McKin­sey pre­dicts that ro­bots could re­place al­most a third of the Amer­i­can work­force by 2030 — and a new crop of highly skilled po­si­tions will emerge.

De­mand is ex­pected to swell for work­ers who can pro­gram and mon­i­tor ma­chines, as well as for man­agers with su­pe­rior com­mu­ni­ca­tion styles. (Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence strug­gles with em­pa­thy.)

Peter Yu, chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer of XYZ Robotics, a start-up that fo­cuses on sup­ply-chain au­to­ma­tion, said work­ers shouldn’t fear the change.

Au­to­ma­tion, he said, will swap bor­ing jobs for bet­ter-pay­ing and more stim­u­lat­ing work.

The United States’ es­ti­mated 908,000 ware­house em­ploy­ees (who don’t all work in e-com­merce) hardly so­cial­ize any­way, Yu said.

“They have to run around here and there and pick up ob­jects,” Yu said. “They don’t have much time to talk to other peo­ple.”

At JD, Cheng Hui, head of robotics re­search for the firm in San Fran­cisco, said mar­ket forces pro­pel the scramble to au­to­mate.

China is grap­pling with a labour shortage, he said.

The coun­try’s one-child pol­icy, which was in place from 1979 to 2016, shaved down to­day’s num­ber of young job seek­ers, giv­ing work­ers more lever­age to ask for higher pay and bet­ter ben­e­fits.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have ad­mit­ted the pol­icy sti­fled pop­u­la­tion growth, mak­ing it tougher and more ex­pen­sive for com­pa­nies to fill va­can­cies.

Yao Meix­iong, deputy di­rec­tor of the cen­sus with the Fu­jian Pro­vin­cial Bureau of Sta­tis­tics, has es­ti­mated that China’s young work­force (20 to 34) in 2030 would to­tal 221 mil­lion, down 104 mil­lion from 2010.

“The lo­gis­tics tal­ent pool is not in­creas­ing as fast as what we need,” JD’s Cheng said. “In that sense, au­to­ma­tion will help to re­lieve that de­mand.”

For Zou, land­ing a job at JD’s first fully au­to­mated ware­house felt like a pro­mo­tion.

He started work in Au­gust 2017, leav­ing an­other ful­fil­ment cen­tre — only 90-per-cent au­to­mated — and the duty of mak­ing sure or­ders shipped on time. (His con­tract, he said, pre­vents him from talk­ing about his salary.)

“The ro­bots re­duce the jobs that are bor­ing,” Zou said.

He doesn’t share the fear that ma­chines will take over. Af­ter all, he said, his role didn’t ex­ist a lit­tle more than a year ago.

Zou re­mem­bers mak­ing his first on­line pur­chase as a teenager: a cus­tom-made basketball jersey.

“This is the fu­ture,” he thought, and it seemed more in­ter­est­ing than sell­ing corn with his par­ents.

He went to business school near his home­town, but higher ed­u­ca­tion didn’t pre­pare him for the specifics of the JD job. Zou com­pletes a train­ing course ev­ery two months — the tech­nol­ogy evolves that quickly.

Aside from work, he said, he likes noo­dles and coun­try­side drives with his girl­friend. He hopes to get mar­ried, have kids some­day and keep build­ing his ca­reer in e-com­merce, “an in­dus­try with great prospects.”

“I want to help pop­u­lar­ize this tech­nol­ogy,” Zou said.

“I want to help spread it around.”

YUYANG LIU PHO­TOS THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Zou Rui, 25, is an en­gi­neer work­ing in China’s e-com­merce gi­ant JD.com’s au­to­mated ware­house, where hun­dreds of ro­bots pack and ship 200,000 boxes per day.

YUYANG LIU FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

YUYANG LIU FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A mem­ber of JD.com’s staff works, nearly alone, in a sprawl­ing ware­house near Shang­hai.As the tech­nol­ogy ad­vances, JD hopes to re­duce its work­force from about 160,000 full-time em­ploy­ees to fewer than 8,000.

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