Inside Amazon: How computers rule over human employees

With slimming profit margins and strict productivity targets, Amazon's human workers are gradually becoming subservient to robots.

Peter Iantorno August 26, 2015

There’s no doubt about it: online shopping has completely revolutionised the way we shop. No longer must we endure painful weekends being dragged around busy malls. Nowadays any product we could possibly desire is freely and easily available at the simple click of a button.

By far the biggest purveyor of online shopping is e-commerce giant Amazon, which was recently valued at an astronomical $250 billion, propelling its CEO and founder, Jeff Bezos, to sixth place in the Forbes World’s Billionaires list.

The online retailer has earned a reputation for its rock bottom prices and lightning-fast delivery, but after you’ve clicked the ‘Place Order’ button and gone on with your normal day, what actually happens to ensure that your product arrives on your doorstep on time?

Well, as you would imagine for a company that sells every product under the sun, Amazon warehouses (or ‘fulfillment centres’, as the company calls them) are vast and chaotic places, and in order to achieve the speed of delivery and profit margins the company demands, efficiency is key.

Amazon Fulfilment centre.jpg A typical Amazon fulfillment centre.

That’s why everything that happens in an Amazon fulfillment centre is monitored and controlled by a sophisticated computer system, which acts as a bionic boss for the warehouse’s human workers.

The first thing that happens when an order arrives is that the Amazon system quickly works out where the particular item is located in its inventory and dispatches a human picker to go and fetch it.

It does this through a handheld device that every picker is equipped with, which alerts the employee every time there is a new order in his designated area and gives a countdown of how long he has to collect the item in order to meet his productivity targets. 

Once the picker arrives at what he thinks is the correct item, he scans it with the device to ensure it is the right one, before putting it on a conveyor belt to the packing area, where the product is packed into an appropriately sized box – again, determined by the computer algorithm – before being labelled with the customer’s address and sent on its way.

Amazon handheld device.jpg The handheld device keeping tabs on Amazon employees.

Throughout the whole process, the handheld device carried by each employee records their performance so their productivity can be assessed at regular intervals. Anyone who is deemed unproductive is put through disciplinary proceedings, often leading to their employment being terminated.

It’s a ruthless approach, but when a company runs on such fine margins as Amazon does, frugality is of paramount importance. In fact, the company says as much on its own website, where it lays out 14 principals it considers essential for leadership, with one being “Accomplish more with less”.

In recent years Amazon has been pushing through innovations that increase efficiency more and more, pushing productivity to the max and eking out as much profit as possible.

It’s well publicised that the company is looking into the possibility of a delivery by drone system, and as the video above shows, Amazon now employs a fleet of smart robots that use motion sensors and QR codes to do exactly the kind of jobs that were previously reserved for humans.

In an environment where efficiency is everything, it’s difficult to see much of a future for comparatively inefficient human employees. As soon as technology reaches a point where it is more economically viable than humans, it will inevitably be implemented.

Will robots steal our jobs in the future? It’s already happening.