Amazon’s Latest Patent Shows Why Today’s Automation Is Different

From the New York Times:

In April, Amazon received an intriguing patent for an “on demand” apparel manufacturing system, which can quickly fill online orders for suits, dresses and other garments.

Amazon — the people who started out selling books online and now sell everything from network cables to cable knit sweaters — is now considering using robots to make some of the clothes they sell.  And that, boys and girls, is Exhibit A why the argument that we don’t have to worry about robots/AI because  hasn’t created mass unemployment in the past doesn’t hold water.

Suppose I told you that John Deere was going to automate some of the garment making business.  You’d think that was a little weird, right?  Until recently, most automation was industry specific:  just because you could automate harvesting wheat didn’t mean you could automate harvesting numbers — aka spreadsheets — or making clothes. 

But now the tech that, say, analyzes cat pictures online may end up driving a wide variety of vision systems.  So it’s a much smaller leap from running a massive online store like Amazon to making drones to making clothes.  Amazon’s patent may automate only some parts of the process, and undoubtedly it’ll only cover some types of clothing.   But the speed at which automation has the potential to cross different types of industries and types of work is a little scary.

Or to put it another way:  the mechanization of wheat harvesting took off roughly in the 1930s and 40s, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that tomato harvesting took off.  Anybody expect it’ll take Amazon 20+ years to go from building drones to automating the manufacturing of some garments?

And that’s why we need to be worried.  In the era of John Deere automation, we could count on  new jobs being created frequently enough to replace the jobs that had been automated away.  But as the speed of automation is starting to accelerate, it is a risky bet to assume that new job creation will keep pace.

Update: how serious is Amazon about AI and robots?  According to one analysis of Amazon’s recent acquisitions and other signs of their intent, Amazon is  “seeking to become the central provider for AI-as-a-service,” where anyone could tap into Amazon’s AI offerings rather than having to build it out themselves.

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