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Where Is the Luddite Movement in Light of the Robotic Revolution?

In 1779, Ned Ludd, an apprentice hand weaver, smashed two stocking frames because of his fear that the improved machinery would put him out of a job. The resistance to automation began in Nottingham, England, and became widespread in the early 1800s. Over time, its attractiveness waned thanks both to government intervention and the awareness that lowering the cost of textiles through automation benefited everyone wearing clothes.

Ned would be astonished at the automation taking place in the U.S. today. Amazon is quietly installing machines called CartonWraps and SmartPacs in its never-ending quest to serve its customers more quickly at lower cost. In busy warehouses serving Seattle, Frankfurt, Milan, Amsterdam, and Manchester, the company is taking the tiring work employees were doing - each spending up to 10 hours a day taking products and building shipping boxes to fit them for shipping – and giving it to robots.

The robots work four times faster than humans – packing up to 700 products in an hour – allowing the people who were doing this work to move on to more interesting and higher paid work. The CartonWrap machine, for instance, uses its 3D scanner to measure the product coming down the conveyor belt and then build the box to the exact size for shipping. Likewise the SmartPacs create envelopes custom-fitted for books and small flat items. The savings are so substantial that the cost of each machine - more than $1 million – is amortized in less than two years.

An Amazon spokesman makes clear that the company isn't doing this to replace its human workers: "We are piloting this new technology with the goal of increasing safety, speeding up delivery times [to our customers], and adding efficiency across our network…. We expect the efficiency savings will be reinvested in new services for customers where new jobs will continue to be created."

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