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A week after imposing a moratorium on sales of its facial recognition service to law enforcement, Amazon today unveiled Distance Assistant, an open source platform designed to enforce physical distancing rules within industrial — and potentially retail and corporate — workspaces. Distance Assistant, which Amazon says it has deployed in a handful of warehouses and intends to expand to “hundreds” in the future, aims to limit the potential for transmission of the novel coronavirus as businesses around the world begin to reopen.
Major health organizations — including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization — recommend maintaining at least six feet between people to prevent contracting — or spreading — the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. A growing number of companies claim to offer solutions to discourage workers from congregating or coming into close contact with each other, but most of these are commercial. Beyond a system published by Landing AI last month, Amazon’s appears to be one of the first freely available.
According to Brad Porter, the Amazon VP leading the company’s robotics initiatives, including Scout and Prime Air, Distance Assistant taps augmented reality to create a “magic-mirror-like” experience that helps workers see their physical distance from others. A camera, depth sensors, and a local computing device (like a laptop) collect data that’s fed into machine learning algorithms that produce overlays on a standalone 50-inch monitor. People remaining six feet apart are highlighted with green circles while those closer together are highlighted in red.
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Distance Assistant requires only a standard power outlet, according to Amazon, and can be quickly deployed to building entrances and other high-visibility areas. A spokesperson told VentureBeat the goal isn’t to help managers spot violations, but rather to identify further social distancing improvements as Amazon continues deploying technologies to enhance health and safety in its facilities.
“We’ve heard that employees find value in getting immediate visual feedback, and site leaders are welcoming another safety measure,” Porter added. “We are also beginning the process to open source the software and AI behind this innovation so that anyone can create their own Distance Assistant,” he said. “Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our employees, and we’ll continue to innovate to keep them as safe as possible.”
Amazon has become the subject of intense scrutiny as COVID-19 outbreaks continue to occur throughout its network of over 175 fulfillment centers.
Warehouse workers in New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Oregon, among other states, have tested positive for the virus, and at least 19 have died. According to an investigation by the Verge, many workers learn of infections only after confronting management or hearing about outbreaks on the news. Thousands of employees to date have signed a petition calling on Amazon to improve safety measures, provide expanded sick leave, and shut down facilities where workers test positive for cleaning. CNN reported earlier this week that the New York Attorney General’s office interviewed workers from New York City-area facilities as part of a probe into the company’s coronavirus response. And in France labor unions forced the company to temporarily shutter its facilities after workers alleged the retailer wasn’t doing enough to protect them from the virus.
Amazon is reportedly readying diagnostic labs as it ramps up COVID-19 testing for warehouse workers. (CNBC, citing three people with knowledge of the plans, says the goal is to test the bulk of the company’s hundreds of thousands of associates every two weeks.) The company also says it has implemented new cleaning procedures and other physical distancing steps (including temperature checks and gloves) as it increases pay by $2 an hour, launches more generous overtime programs, allows unlimited time off without pay, and adds 100,000 people to its workforce.
During a recent earnings call, Amazon said it would spend $4 billion or more on its coronavirus mitigation measures. The company anticipates that this could wipe out its Q2 profit, as it projects operating losses of up to $1.5 billion.
But the retailer’s response to criticism has been at best uneven. Resisting calls for Amazon to release statistics on infections and deaths within its warehouses, VP of worldwide operations Dave Clark characterized the statistics as “not [particularly] useful.” Amazon also fired some employees who staged a walkout over safety concerns, motivating a senior engineer and VP to resign from the company in protest.
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