The Shelves Come to The Pickers

The dawn of Adaptive Worlds

Last year around holiday time, Amazon revealed Amazon Prime Air, its top secret (and thus far unrealized) drone delivery program. This year, it’s unveiled a logistics center where robots and humans work together to fulfill orders. Wired’s Marcus Wohlsen explains:

When inventory arrives at the fulfillment center, items have to wait somewhere before someone orders them. In the traditional process known as “stowing,” a person walks the aisles with a cart and shelves the items. With the Kiva robots, Amazon workers wait at stations for the shelves to come to them, where they load up each one with inventory while the other robots queue politely behind. In the second part of the process, called “picking,” orders come in, and pre-Kiva, pickers would walk the aisles to the bins storing the needed items. Now the shelves come to the pickers instead.

Now the shelves come to the pickers instead. Think about that for a second. Now the shelves come to the pickers instead. It’s one of the most of-the-moment sentences I’ve ever read. In no other era would that even have any meaning. You’d have to think back to something like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia for a similar situation in the past. (One hopes this turns out better.) But the shelves coming to the pickers is a glimpse at the unevenly distributed future.

Sure, there have been delivery robots before, but what’s interesting about these Kiva robots is that they haven’t replaced the human pickers, only supplementing them. The robots do what they can do well— repetitive, boring, gross-motor-skills tasks like moving long distances and hauling — while the humans do what we do well, in this case fine motor skills work and decision making.

“Kiva’s doing the part that’s not that complicated. It’s just moving inventory around,” Clark says. “The person is doing the complicated work, which is reaching in, identifying the right product, making sure it’s the right quality, making sure it’s good enough to be a holiday gift for somebody.”

Now, I don’t have any illusions that the warehouse work at Amazon is suddenly a joy. I’m sure it’s still tedious, difficult work for little pay. But I bet it’s slightly better. Amazon workers previously had to walk 7–15 miles a day and cover their feet in Vaseline to prevent blisters from ill-fitting safety boots. The Kiva system has got to be an improvement.

Similar robo-symbiotic (“robosymbo”?) work is taking place in other environments like the battlefield and operating rooms.

It could be that we’re finally seeing emerge what the late John Rheinfrank called “Adaptive Worlds”: products and environments that are smart enough to change their functionality, content, and even form based on the task and the person’s abilities. In this worldview, design isn’t human-centered (although humans are part of the system) but rather ability-centered: what are the capabilities of the people and products in the system and how can they react and supplement each other to perform activities.

Up until recently, products were products and people could use them or not, or else adapt them (via hacking, settings, customization, etc.). They were mostly, in Rheinfrank’s term, “static.”

Rheinfrank had some guidelines (from a user’s point of view) for designing in an ability-centric way.

  • Let me do. Make sure the activity is of real value. Let my actions and changes in the resulting array feel as though they have been designed for me personally.
  • Orient me. Give me a journey I can take. Don’t steer, just give me a map to help me visualize what I want to accomplish and plan where I want to go.
  • Let me win. Reward me when I accomplish something.
  • Push me. Help me learn. Help me reveal my potential, don’t let me get by. Combine doing with understanding. Skill me.
  • Sense and respond. Personalize it for me. Let me feel the artifact is alive. Make its operation transparent like a window.
  • Connect me. Help me make connections with the subject matter or across destinations with other people.
  • Immerse me. Plunge me into the experience. I can’t tell the difference between me and it, it is so much a part of me.

Now, certainly, based on these guidelines, the Kiva robots aren’t really adaptive. They’re fairly “static.” But we’re almost there. We’ve got the technology, in the form of sophisticated algorithms and sensors and processing speed. The Kiva robots give us a glimpse of what other places — our homes, our workplaces, even our playing fields — might be like, soon. The shelves are coming to the pickers.