Amazon's humanoid warehouse robots will eventually cost only $3 per hour to operate. That won't calm workers' fears of being replaced.

Amazon has initiated testing of a new robot in its warehouse operations called Digit, a humanoid bipedal robot with a turquoise torso and friendly eyes, developed by Agility Robotics. This investment is part of Amazon's Industrial Innovation Fund and represents the company's latest addition of warehouse robots in recent years. Unlike previous cart-shaped or robotic arm robots, Digit has a more human-like form.

Currently, Digit costs about $10 to $12 an hour to operate, but it is projected that this cost will decrease to $2 to $3 an hour plus overhead software costs as production scales up. According to Agility Robotics CEO Damion Shelton, Digit is not intended to replace human workers but rather to collaborate with them. Despite this, the humanoid appearance of Digit may still stoke concerns among workers about potential job replacement.  

Amazon Digit robot
Digit is designed to operate alongside human employees. 

Amazon has been building up its robot fleet for years. It had 45,000 robots across 20 fulfillment centers back in 2017, Insider previously reported, and now says it has "750,000 robots working collaboratively with our employees."

In June 2021, the company introduced a fleet of four robots named after characters from "Sesame Street" and "The Muppets," — Bert, Ernie, Scooter, and Kermit. A year later, Amazon introduced Proteus, a fully autonomous warehouse robot that it said would operate alongside human employees, unlike its regular robots that only operate in a caged area away from human workers. In November 2022, Amazon introduced Sparrow, a picking robot arm with a suction cup hand that's meant for handling individual items in the warehouse inventory.

Unlike the company's other warehouse robots, Amazon says Digit is better designed to operate in spaces designed for humans. 

"Digit can move, grasp, and handle items in spaces and corners of warehouses in novel ways," Amazon said in an announcement on its website. "Our initial use for this technology will be to help employees with tote recycling, a highly repetitive process of picking up and moving empty totes once inventory has been completely picked out of them."

Digit robot
Digit was created by Agility Robotics, which Amazon has invested in. 
Agility Robotics

Amazon has often promoted its robots as a way to improve employee safety and experience.

"We are passionate about technology that makes the work experience of our employees safer, easier, and less repetitive," Amazon says on its website. "Doing so gives our employees the time and opportunity to take a step back, look at how orders are moving through our sites, and find new ways to delight and serve our customers."

But as the company builds out its fleet of robots, it's impossible to ignore the elephant in the room: Is the company doing so to eventually reduce its reliance on a human workforce?

Workers were already worried when the Sparrow arm robot was rolled out last year — one warehouse worker told Insider that it "will take my job" after reading Amazon's description of the robot. In community forums, warehouse workers discussed the possibility that Sparrow might result in empty warehouses, with only small teams of human employees to repair the robots. Amazon has pushed back on these concerns, saying that its robots will only create new categories of jobs within the company.

And it's still not clear whether robots will truly improve worker safety. One whistleblower report in 2020 from investigative journalism site Reveal included leaked internal data that showed that Amazon's robotic warehouses had higher injury rates than warehouses that don't use robots — Amazon strongly refuted the report at the time, saying that the reporter was "misinterpreting data."

"Company data shows that, in 2022, recordable incident rates and lost-time incident rates were 15% and 18% lower, respectively, at Amazon Robotics sites than non-robotics sites," Amazon says on its website.

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