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Artificial intelligence

A giant new retail fulfillment center in China has only four employees

June 13, 2018

JD.com, one of China’s big e-commerce companies, has unveiled a warehouse in Shanghai that, it says, only keeps humans on board so they can service all the robots.

Wage hikes: The rising cost of labor has triggered a race to automate many areas of industry in China. That has translated into ambitious investment and research in robotics, and it is likely to figure in China’s grand artificial-intelligence push as well. 

Automation angst: The news conjures images of rapid automation and job displacement. But it’s important to note that the process of filling retail orders on  a large scale is already heavily automated. Step inside one of Amazon’s fulfillment centers, for instance, and you’ll see robots moving around shelves of goods, as well as automated systems routing and tracking products and packages by the million.

Pick that up: While many fulfillment tasks are easily automatable and scalable, some, like picking and packing items, are more difficult to automate. As a video released by JD.com shows, the company is trying to tackle some challenging stuff, like packing products, using specialized machinery. It also apparently uses an AI vision system to inspect packages as they are processed.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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