Modern luddites smash $15M industrial robots: forced to train metal replacements via ‘skinning’ process

This is the fourth chapter of Insights from the Future. This is a book I’m writing about technology, innovation, and people … from the perspective of the future. Subscribe to my newsletter mailing list to keep in touch and get notified when the book publishes. Previously published at Medium.

June 7, 2023

Fifteen workers at the LAX Distribution Center in Los Angeles were arrested Monday for alleged robot-smashing: destroying nine robots worth an estimated $15 million.

The warehouse worker don’t deny the charges, but insist that what they were forced to do was inhuman and unfair, violated their collective bargaining agreement, and were simply protecting their families.

“The company forced us to wear skin suits that collect data on every motion,” one worker who declined to provider her name alleged. “They were training the robots that were going to take our jobs with our very own bodies.”

The new technology is called skinning.

It’s rapidly taking over as the quickest and cheapest way to train smart robotic systems to do complex jobs in the real world. Traditional machine learning processes require constant repetition: thousands or even tens of thousands of iterations. While that’s cheap and quick for virtual tasks, or jobs which can be easily emulated in computer simulations, in variable conditions such as construction sites it’s slow, mistake-ridden, and expensive in damaged inventory.

Plus of course, it slows job completion.

LAX Distribution Center managers intend to press destruction of property charges, according to a company representative.

“We anticipate a 75% reduction in labor costs with a simultaneous 50% boost in productivity,” says public relations manager Jasmine Rekers. “Given that our competitors are exploring the same efficiencies in operation, we literally can’t not make the investment.”

When a union heckler at the press conference asked Rekers what she planned to do when the robots came for her job, the PR representative had no comment.

The maximum penalty for the workers is between one and three years, plus a possible fine of up to $10,000. Given that this is the tenth such incident just this month, the attorney general is exploring tougher options.

“We need a deterrent, and a few months in jail is clearly not enough,” assistant Attorney General Maria Sanchez said in an official comment. “We’re exploring all options.”

Union organizers and employment rights advocates have their own ideas on options.

“We need protection for human jobs,” says one, Franklin Jones, who runs the local chapter of the Factory Union.

Another novel idea pushed by some: robot taxation, the proceeds of which would go to fund universal basic income. That, however, seems politically challenging in the current environment.

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