Amazon deploys AI ‘distance assistants’ to notify warehouse workers if they get too close

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Amazon, which is currently being sued for allegedly failing to protect workers from COVID-19, has unveiled a new AI tool it says will help employees follow social distancing rules.

The company’s “Distance Assistant” combines a TV screen, depth sensors, and AI-enabled camera to track employees’ movements and give them feedback in real time. When workers come closer than six feet to one another, circles around their feet flash red on the TV, indicating to employees that they should move to a safe distance apart. The devices are self-contained, meaning they can be deployed quickly where needed and moved about.

Amazon compares the system to radar speed checks which give drivers instant feedback on their driving. The assistants have been tested at a “handful” of the company’s buildings, said Brad Porter, vice president of Amazon Robotics, in a blog post, and the firm plans to roll out “hundreds” more to new locations in the coming weeks.

Importantly, Amazon also says it will be open-sourcing the technology, allowing other companies to quickly replicate and deploy these devices in a range of locations.

Amazon isn’t the only company using machine learning in this way. A large number of firms offering AI video analytics and surveillance have created similar social-distancing tools since the coronavirus outbreak began. Some startups have also turned to physical solutions, like bracelets and pendants which use Bluetooth signals to sense proximity and then buzz or beep to remind workers when they break social distancing guidelines.

Although these solutions will be necessary for workers to return to busy facilities like warehouses, many privacy experts worry their introduction will normalize greater levels of surveillance. Many of these solutions will produce detailed data of workers’ movements throughout the day, allowing managers to hound employees in the name of productivity. Workers will also have no choice but to be tracked in this way if they want to keep their job.

Amazon’s involvement in this sort of technology will raise suspicions as the company is often criticized for the grueling working conditions in its facilities. In 2018, it even patented a wristband that would track workers’ movements in real time, directing not just which task they should do next, but if their hands are moving towards the wrong shelf or bin.

The company’s description of the Distance Assistant as a ”standalone unit” that only requires power suggests it’s not storing any data about worker’s movement, but we’ve contacted the company to confirm what information, if any, might be retained.

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