Congratulations Pete Wurman and Kiva Systems, a bellwether of the automated economy

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.

4 thoughts on “Congratulations Pete Wurman and Kiva Systems, a bellwether of the automated economy”

  1. You programmed for the Newton, too??

    I was a very novice NewtonScript coder, but I managed to scratch a couple of itches on my MP2k. I still have one, and power it up every once in a while for party tricks. 🙂


  2. Yes, a lifetime ago, also as a novice. Wow, that’s cool you still have one. I still have a Apple II+ somewhere I believe and a Mac IIcx I’d like to power up someday assuming it, well, comes up.

  3. David,

    You write: “The world is a better place with mechanical devices doing mechanical tasks, leaving people to do more interesting and creative things.”

    I hope to God you’re right, but, I do hold deep reservations. Were the household weavers who were replaced by textile mills in Dicksonian England free “to do more interesting and creative things?” Or, were they “free” to compete for jobs with children on the mill’s manufacturing lines, or to turn to a life of poverty and crime in London’s streets?

    Currently, McDonald’s Europe has begun to replace its cashiers with touch screen monitors. Will those laid off cashiers now be free to do “more interesting and creative things”? And, besides, wasn’t the service economy supposed to replace the manufacturing economy? I wonder when those touch screen monitors will be coming to the U.S.?

    Thomas Peterffy created the first automated Wall Street trading system: he used a computer to execute trades, without humans entering them manually on a keyboard. More and more Wall Street Traders are being replaced by these “Trade Bots.” Will these laid off Wall Street Traders now be free to do “more interesting and creative things”? I thought Wall Street trading was pretty interesting…..

    Google is now touting its driverless cars. Will drivers be free “to do more interesting and creative things?” Or, will they loose a valuable human skill, and will taxi, bus, and UPS drivers be “free” to compete with other deskilled human beings for fewer and fewer non-automatable jobs?

    1) Are most of the millions of human beings replaced by automated processes going to start-up companies?
    2) Are the human beings creating these new companies going to hire human beings to perform company tasks, or, will they employ even more automation?
    3) Will the people who are left to do “more interesting and creative things” be paid to do “more interesting and creative things”? If not, how will they survive?
    4) How does an economy survive when its consumers, who were, for the most part wage-based employees, are no longer able to consume because their jobs have been replaced by automation?

  4. Cynthia, thank you for your thoughtful comment. You raise a number of excellent questions and I don’t have all the answers. There is no doubt society will have to adapt once machines can handle more and more mechanical tasks. Historically, when technology has replaced humans there have been new jobs for people to do. I agree we may reach a point when that stops happening. At that point, we will have to make decisions as a society. I believe this will involve less focus on “working for a living”. Working in the future will be more like hobbies are now. Basic sustenance will be provided by governments or through automatic ownership of shares in companies. Remember, people can also take advantage of automation in their homes. I know this sounds utopian and idealistic but something like this may eventually happen though the transition may be painful for some. This is a fascinating read on the subject:

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