Congratulations to my academic sibling, friend, and Detroit Red Wings fan Pete Wurman, whose company Kiva Systems just became Amazon’s second largest acquisition ever.
In short, Kiva Systems designs, builds, and operates intelligent autonomous robots to pick and stow products in giant distribution centers for companies like Toys R Us, Walgreens, and Zappos. (The latter is an Amazon subsidiary.) The best way to understand Kiva Systems is to watch their robots in action: an amazing sight to see. Here is a clip from IEEE Spectrum:
In 2003, I remember sitting in the back seat of a car with Pete, him excitedly demo-ing the concept to me via an animated simulation on his laptop, little dots representing robots weaving in and out of each on the screen. (Pete’s laptop was a mac. In grad school, Pete was every bit the Apple fan I was and more. He and I programmed HyperCard and Newton together. Pete advocated for simplicity in design before it was cool. When I briefly switched to Windows, he never wavered.)
By 2006, the robots were real. Pete took me and our shared academic parent, Mike Wellman (who I believe also played an early role in the company), on a tour. Dots on a laptop had become squat orange robots receiving orders, fetching products, avoiding each other, seeking power, and otherwise navigating around a complex environment with computational minds of their own. The designs were inspired: for example, to lift a box, the robot spun underneath it to extend a corkscrew so that the product wouldn’t get jarred. They even added noise in the robots’ paths, so their wheels wouldn’t wear grooves in the floor (call it a floorsaver algorithm).
By coincidence, a few weeks ago, I was speaking to someone from Amazon who works on optimizing the way people (ha!) retrieve, store, and pack items in their distribution centers and I mentioned Pete’s company. He said “until that happens” he would focus on optimizing their current systems. Little did we (or at least I) know how quickly “until” would come.
Kiva Systems isn’t just an incredibly cool company run by amazing people. It’s a harbinger of things to come as the world moves inexorably toward an Automated Economy.
By the way, if you’re worried that robots will take jobs away from people, don’t. The world is a better place with mechanical devices doing mechanical tasks, leaving people to do more interesting and creative things, for example turning crazy ideas into companies. Remember that the purpose of jobs is to produce valuable things and improve the world. Despite political rhetoric, jobs are not an end to themselves. Otherwise, we should all be happy digging ditches and filling them back up, or pumping gas for people who would rather do it themselves. Think about where society should go in fifty or a hundred years when automation can handle more and more tasks. It would be a real shame if at that time people were still “working for a living” in jobs they don’t enjoy simply for the sake of keeping them occupied.