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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

JD.com, a Chinese e-commerce gargantuan, has built a big new Shanghai fulfillment center that can organize, pack and ship 200,000 orders a day. It employs four people — all of whom service the robots.

What's going on: Welcome to the creeping new age of automation. When the talk turns to Chinese big tech — rivals to Google, Amazon and the rest of Silicon Valley — the names usually cited are Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent. But scrappy JD, with a respectable $58 billion market cap, is investing aggressively to be added to the pantheon.

Its secret sauce, executives said this week in Beijing and Shanghai, is logistics — its creation of China's first east-to-west, north-to-south package delivery business, able to deliver a purchase the same day almost anywhere in the nation, as long as it's ordered by 11 a.m.

But to get faster and more reliable, just as important is automation: From smart warehouses that process orders, to self-driving trucks and drones to deliver them, JD's research and development team is working on ways to eliminate costly workers.

Why it matters: This is the future. Like JD, its fierce e-commerce rival Alibaba has also built an entirely automated warehouse, showing how retail will probably be done in years to come everywhere including the U.S. and Europe.

  • JD says its objective is not to eliminate workers but to get faster and more reliable, and that it will shift its warehouse people to other jobs.
  • Its new mantra is "retail as a service," in which it will sell the efficient methods it's developed to other companies.

The rap on JD has been that it is far less profitable than Alibaba. But JD responds that, as Jeff Bezos expanded Amazon, its logistics buildout is proof it is investing in itself.

  • "Everything is about scale," says CTO Chen Zhang, speaking with a small group of reporters at its Beijing headquarters.
  • "When you invest in technology, you don't worry about spending money. You worry whether you can get to scale. When scale comes, profit will come."

Get more stories like this by signing up for our twice-weekly robotics, AI and labor newsletter, Axios Future. 

Go deeper

House passes bill to decriminalize marijuana

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a longtime marijuana legalization advocate and co-sponsor of the bill. Photo: Pete Marovich For The Washington Post via Getty Images

The House on Friday voted 228-164 in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, marking the first time a congressional chamber has voted in favor of decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level.

Why it matters: The Washington Post describes the bill as a "landmark retreat in the nation’s decades-long war on drugs," which has disproportionately affected people of color.

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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Politics: Fauci says he accepted Biden's offer to be chief medical adviser "on the spot" — Biden plans to ask public to wear masks for first 100 days in office.
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  3. Economy: U.S. economy adds 245,000 jobs in November as recovery slows — America's hidden depression: K-shaped recovery threatens Biden administration.
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Clean trucks are paving the road to the electric vehicle era

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The electric vehicle revolution is underway, led by the un-sexiest of plug-in models: the commercial truck.

Why it matters: Growing demand for cleaner trucks means 2021 will be a pivotal year for electric vehicles — just not the kind you might have expected.

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