The cargo automation odyssey

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Air Cargo World editor, Randy Woods

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that…” Spoken nearly 50 years ago by the HAL 9000 computer in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” those words are still some of the most chilling in 20th century cinema. At that moment, when HAL refused an order to “open the pod bay doors,” leaving astronaut Dave Bowman stranded in space, the technology that mankind created to explore other planets proved that it had become self-aware, and considered humans to be dispensable cargo.

In the film (spoiler alert), Dave was able to outwit the computer by climbing back aboard through the emergency airlock (without his helmet!) and shut down HAL’s higher cognitive functions. But ever since that 1968 exchange on the silver screen, the debate over the superiority of biological and artificial intelligence has been at the center of most good science fiction. The same could be said for “science fact,” too.

That’s always the promise and the risk of technology, isn’t it? Something created to make work easier jumps its intended boundaries and takes jobs away from the less-efficient humans it was supposed to help. Since the global economic crisis, politicians in the United States have been quick to point fingers, accusing each other of being too lax on companies that move factories overseas, or allowing too many illegal workers to cross borders and steal jobs. In truth, the greatest blame for job loss lies not with immigration or trade barriers, but with global capitalism’s relentless pursuit of automation, which has transformed many factory assembly lines into tireless robotic farms working 24/7, regardless of borders.

Mar17_Warehouse_IAM Robotics 2This month’s “Warehousing 4.0” story, prominently features automation, with robots in one pilot project being used to pick-and-pack items at a distribution center at much lower costs than their human counterparts. For the first time, artificial intelligence has proven to be at least as good as trained humans at finding complex e-commerce orders quickly in the warehouse and processing those orders with a low number of errors. It seems it is only a matter of time before air cargo starts to move through the supply chain untouched by human hands.

But, according to many sources we spoke to, automation in the cargo business is not yet moving fast enough to keep up with the growth of e-commerce. As engineer John Cameron, of IAM Robotics, said in an interview with Air Cargo World, today’s logistics robots are being designed not to replace humans but to just to keep pace with expected order-fulfillment demand above and beyond what humans can handle today. By around 2020, he said, “there may not be enough employable people in the United States to even meet the demand for the e-commerce jobs they’re going to have.”

On the flip side of the automation coin, of course, is the expected shift in the types of jobs that will be available in logistics companies in the wake of increased automation. While artificial intelligence replaces humans in the more menial and dangerous jobs on the fulfillment center picking floor, demand will rise for jobs that require more technical electronics skills to operate, program and repair these machines and web-based apps.

So are we just squeezing out lower-income, less-skilled jobs in favor of higher-income jobs that focus on data analysis and require costly training? As an industry, we’ll have to figure out which way to open that pod bay door – with our helmet or without.

Finally, it’s almost here: Air Cargo World’s first-ever joint presentation, along with sister publication Cargo Facts, of the Cargo Facts Asia conference, April 25-26 in Shanghai. We are thrilled to welcome such distinguished speakers as Ricky Xue, from Alibaba’s Cainiao network, and Peter Huang of SF Express Airlines, who will describe the latest developments in cross-border e-commerce. Be sure to check out cargofactsasia.com for registration information and more details about speakers and sessions.

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