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Amazon Introduces Social Distance Software at Warehouses, but That Won't Fix Its Coronavirus Problem

Illustration for article titled Amazon Introduces Social Distance Software at Warehouses, but That Wont Fix Its Coronavirus Problem
Screenshot: Amazon (YouTube)

Amazon is debuting a new software that will send its warehouse employees real-time visual cues about their physical proximity to other workers, one of the company’s latest initiatives in response to covid-19—a problem the company has been struggling to address in its facilities.

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Called Distance Assistant, the system will be deployed in high-visibility areas and entrances in Amazon warehouses and will show workers visual overlays on large-screen monitors to indicate whether they are six feet away from other personnel. When someone passes one of the 50-inch monitors in these areas, they will see either a green or red circle around their person, depending on whether or not they are maintaining six feet of distance.

“Working backwards from a concept of immediate visual feedback, and inspired by existing examples like radar speed check signs, our ‘Distance Assistant’ provides employees with live feedback on social distancing via a 50 inch monitor, a camera, and a local computing device,” Brad Porter, a VP of robots, wrote in a blog post about the technology. “The standalone unit uses machine learning models to differentiate people from their surroundings. Combined with depth sensors, it creates an accurate distance measurement between associates.”

Porter said that Amazon has already introduced the social distancing system at a handful of sites, adding that it will be rolling out hundreds more units in the coming weeks. Amazon said it will also make the software open source “so that anyone can create their own Distance Assistant.”

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Adding physical indicators for employees working in Amazon’s densely populated warehouses will no doubt be helpful, but Porter’s blog post appears to indicate these units are reserved at present for “high-visibility areas” rather than work station areas where workers might be more likely to crowd others in their proximity. Amazon did not immediately return a request for comment about whether it plans to use similar tech on warehouse lines or in areas or departments where workers have said it’s harder to maintain social distance.

One worker who spoke with CNN in April said that social distancing can be impossible in spaces like docks where multiple employees might be cramped in a single truck or at close-together computer stations. The worker also said that in other spaces like “the packing department, there are no walls, so people are really shoulder-to-shoulder.”

Still, Porter said the monitor system is “just one of many ideas that have surfaced over the past few months,” adding that “it will not be the last.” Given that Amazon is now being sued by workers who say the company is not doing enough to protect them, you’d certainly hope that would be the case.

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DISCUSSION

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The bigger problem with Amazon warehouse is their ruthless pursuit of efficiency above all else. The metrics for things like number of items picked in an hour are so high as to be inhumane. Amazon workers are literally pissing in empty soda bottles rather than go to the bathroom, all to keep up with the numbers they need to hit to keep their jobs. Amazon should relax those per-person metrics, give more humane provisions for breaks, and hire more workers to hit the same total production numbers. They could easily still be profitable while doing this but choose not to. So much so that they actively fight unionization efforts, because inevitably the points the unions would negotiate for in a contract are relaxing those production metrics and better breaks.