Amazon's 'Distance Assistant' uses AI to track warehouse social distancing

This will be invaluable for employee health — and also for Amazon's surveillance efforts.

Amazon is taking some intense new measures to ensure employees are properly social distancing on the job amid the ongoing pandemic. The company has created an AI-powered “Distance Assistant” to alert employees when they’re getting a little too close to each other, Amazon announced on its Day One blog today.

Warehouses are perfect for packing in lots of employees to increase productivity and profits. By their very nature, that also makes them prime breeding grounds for illness. Amazon caught some hefty slack for its COVID-19 policies at the start of the pandemic, much of which centered on the company’s inability to enforce social distancing policies in its warehouses.

Now it looks like the company is finally ready to leverage its technology prowess to protect its workers. Those efforts could also be harmful to workers in the long run.

Protection — The Distance Assistant uses depth sensors and an AI camera to track employee movements and provides instant feedback to employees by displaying their efforts on a TV screen. A green circle with a six-foot radius surrounds each worker; when two workers’ circles overlap even a little, they flash red on the TV screen.

The merits of Amazon’s latest technology project are many. Humans are notoriously bad at calculating distance based on sight alone — with Amazon’s Distance Assistants deployed in a factory, they no longer need to shoulder the burden of that guesswork.

The whole setup is actually self-contained and requires only a single electrical outlet to function. That, in combination with Amazon’s plans to open-source the device, will allow it to be useful in all kinds of situations.

Surveillance — Like all AI-powered camera solutions, Amazon’s Distance Assistant must be introduced with some warning. Yes, it will be used to keep employees safe, and yes, the methods here are mostly harmless.

But it is necessary also to be wary of these solutions, for they also enable employers to track employees with incredible detail. Workers will not be allowed a choice in this new surveillance: it’s either get with the program or find a new job.

Amazon hasn’t yet spoken to the Distance Assistant’s capabilities for reporting. The device is being marketed as a public health solution, but it also increases Amazon’s ever-watchful eye over its employees. That extra surveillance could easily be used as leverage for penalizing or even firing workers.

Amazon says early employee reviews show the Distance Assistant is being valued as a safety measure. The company has only installed the devices in a few buildings so far, but it plans to deploy hundreds more in the next few weeks. That’s hundreds more AI-powered cameras ready to catch workers' most minimal mistakes in high definition.