Shortly before Prime Day in June, Amazon announced it was developing two robots for its infamously demanding distribution centers. Named “Bert” and “Ernie” after the Sesame Street Muppets, the robots, Amazon claimed, would help relieve the physical burden of its jobs by autonomously carting materials through distribution center floors and lifting heavy totes off shelves. They were not, the company stressed, intended to increase speed or replace workers, but to improve safety and free workers for tasks “that require…critical thinking skills.” According to the company, the robots weren’t some nefarious plot; instead, they embodied its empathy for workers and commitment to innovations that would help consumers and employees alike.
The announcement’s timing was convenient. The last four Prime Days, including the this year’s, have seen protests against the company’s working conditions, including many at which workers proclaimed “We are human, not robots.” The New York Times recently reported that Amazon had difficulty maintaining its workforce during the pandemic, a trend that has reached such a crisis point that executives fear it will run out of workers. As former executive Paul Stroup reportedly told the Times. “We keep using them … even though we know we’re slowly cooking ourselves.” In April, management fended off a unionization drive in its Bessemer, Alabama, center, but efforts to organize the company persist. After management’s victory, Jeff Bezos sent a letter to the company acknowledging signs of worker alienation but disputing the accusation that the company sees workers as robots: “[O]ur employees are sometimes accused of being desperate souls and treated as robots,” he wrote. “That’s not accurate. They’re sophisticated and thoughtful people who have options for where to work.”
Amazon wants us to see the Bert and Ernie robots in the context of Bezos’s pledge to make the company “Earth’s Best Employer.” Instead, they suggest that workers are in for more of the same tech-fetishism and disdain for their labor that undergirds the tracking, automated performance evaluation, and “management by app” system that makes them feel like robots.
As IEEE’s Spectrum argues, these robots do not seem innovative and may even be outdated relative to those of other companies. What is new are the nicknames, which don’t even line up to the Sesame Street characters’ personalities. “Ernie” does not appear to be any less fastidious as it shelves totes than “Bert,” which transports carts across warehouse floors. Nor do they share the sartorial style of their felt counterparts. Maybe the two robots secretly share a romantic relationship, but any speculation there would be entirely subtextual. In the same release, Amazon noted that it was also developing “autonomously guided carts” named “Scooter” (which at least makes sense) and “Kermit” (which does not). Lacking any stated reason, the Muppet monikers are a particularly clumsy way of humanizing devices that would otherwise be seen as a threat, a version of late-20th-century stories of workers nicknaming robots that were making work easier for some while cutting particular jobs and undermining unions.
Amazon’s strategy is straight out of Robot Marketing 101. The first American corporation to use robots in this manner was Westinghouse, which in the late 1920s and 1930s sent seven mechanical humanoids—including one in blackface—around the country to advertise remote control technologies. In a society actively debating technological unemployment and legislative solutions to the issue, these robots smoked cigarettes and told jokes like human beings while showing how workers would soon control machines rather than becoming slaves to their pace. Industrial robotics company Unimation employed a similar strategy in 1966 when it sent its Unimate on the Tonight Show to putt and pour a beer while activists campaigned against the uncritical adoption of automation. Now, in yet another period of reckoning over the nature of work, Amazon’s robots rely on the same strategies. In the future, they may or may not help workers, but for now they offer little more than a cliched marketing strategy that can threaten workers with unemployment but reassure consumers that they don’t have to feel guilty about participating in Prime Day.
The key to the robot’s power is that it isn’t primarily a technology; it’s a character that unifies two narratives about modern work: the ways that machinery seems to be growing more autonomous and human while humans seem to be growing more controlled and mechanical. As historian Tobias Higbie has uncovered, the first robots in America were workers. The term entered America in 1922 with the New York premiere of Karel Capek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots, a play that both satirized how managers and engineers dismissed labor as beneath humanity and established the now-inescapable narrative of robotic rebellion. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, however, Americans primarily applied the term to alienated workers, not machinery. They only began to apply it to technology later due, in large part, to Westinghouse’s efforts to position its robots as both the savior of and replacement for the potentially rebellious worker. Still, the term retained its dual meaning. In 1931, future Sen.
Ralph Flanders described the industrial laborer as a “natural robot,” and in 1971 the New York Times labeled a strike by workers against the introduction of Unimates to GM’s Lordstown, Ohio factory a “Revolt of the Robots.” When Amazon workers complain that they are treated as “robots,” they are drawing on both the term’s original meaning and a larger history of elites equating laborers with the machines that could replace them.
I keep returning to the line in Amazon’s announcement about how robots will free workers for jobs “that require … critical thinking skills,” an implicit acknowledgement that managers think that current distribution center jobs do not require such skills—though workers would probably contest that claim. Amazon seems to be referencing its Mechatronics and Robotics Apprenticeship that promises “up to 40% higher wages” if employees take a 12-week course, fulfill a year-long apprenticeship, and then successfully apply for a technician job. Part of Amazon’s Upskilling 2025 initiative, the program suggests plans to automate distribution jobs and allow only those workers managers see as committed enough to the company and self-improvement to remain employed. Amid both unionization efforts and rapid workforce turnover, it is difficult to see “Bert,” “Ernie,” “Scooter,” and “Kermit” as anything more than a threat to workers to improve themselves or risk obsolescence—all wrapped up in a nonthreatening identity. It is almost as if Amazon chose to name the robots after Muppets to suggest that workers should see themselves as the human cast members who treat the Muppet-robots as the moral equivalent of people while everyone in the audience laughs at the absurdity and keeps consuming. Maybe just keeping us consuming without thinking about the reality is the point. Much as Muppets conceal real human labor behind the performance, robots ultimately allow us to ignore the dehumanizing conditions that shape the production and distribution of the things we desire.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.