If the robots aren't taking over, they're at least making their presence known.
Some retailers are now staffing their warehouses with with scores of robots, produced by Boston-based Kiva Systems, CNNMoney reports. Mike Mountz, who invented the robots, told CNNMoney that he came up with the idea for the robots after watching the failure of his former employer due to high labor costs associated with collecting items before shipping.
The robots use a grid system to travel around the warehouses and pick up enter shelves of goods to bring to human workers for packaging, according to CNNMoney. So far Kiva's client-list includes Staples, Amazon and The Gap.
But while the robots may increase efficiency and boost quality-of-life for those workers still employed at warehouses -- which in the case of Amazon have reportedly been dangerous -- these robots do lower the need for human workers.
The warehouse robots are just the latest example of companies relying on technology for their staffing needs, not humans. Since 1999, firms have boosted their investment in equipment and software by 33 percent. That's a 26 percent jump from the end of the Great Recession, the Wall Street Journal reports. Meanwhile, employment growth for human workers has continued at a sluggish pace.
With unemployment stuck hovering at 9 percent for months, some critics argue robots like the Kiva Systems robots are putting detrimental pressure on the labor market, but it's yet to be seen if robot staffing is a permanent phenomenon. While retailers are expected to spend 12 percent more on automated grocery checkout systems by 2015, as Reuters reports, some grocery chains may be more committed to using human staffing. Big Y, for one, is reportedly scaling back its self-service lanes, largely due to customer dissatisfaction.
Some argue that humans will inevitably lose jobs to more advanced machines with dire consequences for the quality of life of many. Others counter that increased productivity pushes the economy forward and allows more time for innovation and education.
Whatever the effect, experts at a recent robotics conference agreed that that the role of automated labor in business will undoubtedly bring about a significant change in the economy, Computerworld reports. But don't expect human workers to be completely eliminated any time soon.
"We shouldn't be worried that we're going to run out of jobs," MIT economist David Autor told Computerworld. "But we may not like all the jobs being created."