This article is part of our Rising Star Portfolio series.
Last month, Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) announced its purchase of Kiva Systems, which brings robotic labor to shipping centers. This could be a futuristic victory for squeezing hyper-efficiency from the e-commerce giant's ever-burgeoning business.
On the other hand, it could also be a peek into a more dystopian future. After all, ugly portrayals of the revenge of the machines have been portrayed many times in countless sci-fi books and movies that Amazon itself sells.
Do robots dream of affordable health insurance?
Amazon's $775 million purchase of Kiva will help order fulfillment go fast and furious. Kiva's robots already sling shoes and diapers for Amazon.com, since its subsidiaries Zappos.com and Diapers.com use them.
The first thought that springs to mind is that robots could replace human workers. Remember allegations last summer that Amazon's eastern Pennsylvania warehouse was unhealthily hot? Apparently so many workers landed at a local hospital emergency room that OSHA was contacted about an unsafe work environment; 15 laborers reportedly collapsed. Robots, on the other hand, are tireless; require a one-time investment and no raises, bonuses, or health insurance; and, other than C-3PO, don't have a tendency to complain.
Still, when it comes to human versus robotic labor, right now it looks as if the use of robots in fulfillment centers will make Amazon workers' lives easier instead of taking their jobs. The robots will do the walking for them and bring them the merchandise they need, saving them the frequent walks to pick the stock from shelves. So Amazon still needs to make the climate hospitable for humans in its warehouses.
The Wall Street Journal reported that other retail operations, such as Gap and Crate & Barrel, use Kiva robots, too. This is another win for Amazon: The company will continue to sell the robots to other retailers with a need for speed. Each robot sports a price tag of somewhere between a few million to nearly $20 million.
An Amazon spokeswoman said no layoffs will result from the Kiva acquisition, although stepping up efficiency probably will result in the eventual loss of some jobs. Over the long haul, though, this kind of efficiency should mean more opportunities in other areas for human workers.
Robots, pro and con
Robots can be annoying, if not downright problematic. Robo-calls aren't high on anybody's list of great innovations that make life easier for anyone, except maybe for irritating telemarketers who interrupt our dinnertime.
And remember what happened during the Gulf of Mexico oil-spill disaster? BP (NYSE: BP ) sent in the robots, but one of them ended up knocking the venting system, filing the operation under the category for robotic fail.
Still, robots aren't always bad news. iRobot's (Nasdaq: IRBT ) robotic Roomba vacuums can make life just a little bit easier. I'm sure many people don't mind having a Roomba take a little of the elbow grease out of housework.
The company's iRobot Warrior and PackBot robots have their usefulness, too; Progress Energy (NYSE: PGN ) recently purchased some to do some work at its Robinson Nuclear Plant. These types of robots do work many people understandably don't want to do, like running around near nuclear and radioactive environments.
Then there's MAKO Surgical (Nasdaq: MAKO ) , which provides robotic solutions to medical procedures, giving orthopedic surgeons and their patients access to less invasive methods to repair knees and hips.
Danger, Will Robinson?
Amazon's Kiva acquisition gave me pause at first glance. I bought shares of Amazon.com for the socially responsible Rising Star portfolio I'm managing for Fool.com, because I believe it's a great, innovative, and well-run company that does more good than ill in the world.
However, no company is perfect, as Amazon's overheated-warehouse controversy illustrated all too well. I had to wonder whether the Kiva acquisition was a step toward a more inhuman, if not inhumane, world.
For now, though, I remain overall bullish on Amazon. Maybe we don't have to joke about welcoming our new robotic overlords, but instead we can embrace the idea that robots can simply help. We can hope that taking some of the manual labor out of certain occupations lightens the load and physical wear and tear for human workers.
In the long run, such innovation can speed up and juice economic activity to open up more productive employment for workers everywhere.
What do you think: Can we have socially responsible robots, or could Amazon's business become way too inhuman? Let me know in the comments box below.
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