Ama­zon

Re­tail gi­ant says it didn’t im­ple­ment tech­nol­ogy, has no cur­rent plans to.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Matt Day and Ben­jamin Ro­mano

A patent Ama­zon has re­ceived would pair hu­mans and ma­chines. In this case, the hu­mans would be in a cage.

Il­lus­tra­tions that ac­com­pany the patent, which was granted by the U.S. Patent and Trade­mark of­fice in 2016, show a cage­like en­clo­sure around a small workspace sit­ting atop the kind of ro­botic trol­leys that now drive racks of shelves around Ama­zon ware­houses.

The patent was called “an ex­tra­or­di­nary il­lus­tra­tion of worker alien­ation, a stark mo­ment in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween hu­mans and ma­chines” by re­searchers who high­lighted it in a study pub­lished Fri­day.

Ama­zon says it never im­ple­mented the tech­nol­ogy and has no plans to, but the de­sign ap­peared to be an ef­fort to al­low hu­mans to safely en­ter ro­bot-only zones in Ama­zon’s highly au­to­mated de­pots to make re­pairs or pick up dropped ob­jects.

In an Ama­zon fa­cil­ity in Kent, for ex­am­ple, 750-pound ro­bots topped with shelves scoot around an area sur­rounded by high chain­link fences, bring­ing mer­chan­dise like iPhone cases and cof­fee mugs to wait­ing em­ploy­ees who place or re­trieve items from win­dows built into the fence.

If an unau­tho­rized hu­man strays into the ro­bot-only zone, the com­pany says, an alarm is trig­gered and the de­vices are de­signed to shut down to avoid col­lid­ing with the per­son. Ama-

zon, in its patent, sug­gested a way around that firm bound­ary be­tween hu­man and ro­bot ter­ri­tory.

“There may be cir­cum­stances where it is nec­es­sary for hu­man op­er­a­tors to tra­verse, or oth­er­wise go into, an ac­tive work space,” says the patent, which cred­its eight in­ven­tors in the Bos­ton area, home of Ama­zon Ro­bot­ics, which was formed through the ac­qui­si­tion of Kiva Sys­tems in 2012.

Lind­say Camp­bell, an Ama­zon spokes­woman, said spec­u­la­tion about the com­pany’s use of the patent was “mis­guided.”

“Like many com­pa­nies, we file a num­ber of for­ward-look­ing patent ap­pli­ca­tions,” she said. Many don’t see the light of day as fin­ished prod­ucts, par­tic­u­larly at Ama­zon, which en­cour­ages em­ploy­ees to ex­per­i­ment and in­vent. Such a cage­like de­vice is not in use in any Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ters, Camp­bell said.

Af­ter this story was pub­lished on­line, Dave Clark, who over­sees Ama­zon’s ware­houses and lo­gis­tics work as se­nior vice pres­i­dent of op­er­a­tions, weighed in on Twit­ter to say the com­pany had no plans to use the con­trap­tion.

Still, the com­pany’s patents of­ten spark con­jec­tures about Ama­zon’s tech­nol­ogy and busi­ness plans. Other Ama­zon patents have mulled us­ing wrist­bands to track work­ers’ hand move­ments, drop­ping pack­ages from drones 25 feet in the air or hav­ing drones them­selves link up to form a kind of float­ing ware­house.

A ref­er­ence to the cage patent ap­pears in a lengthy case study of the var­i­ous sys­tems that make up Ama­zon’s Echo ecosys­tem, pub­lished Fri­day by Kate Craw­ford, a co-founder of the AI Now In­sti­tute at New York Uni­ver­sity, and Vladan Joler, a pro­fes­sor in the new me­dia depart­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Novi Sad in Ser­bia. Craw­ford is also a prin­ci­pal re­searcher at Mi­crosoft Re­search.

Craw­ford and Joler, in the re­search work ti­tled “Anatomy of an AI Sys­tem,” de­scribe the patent:

“It de­picts a metal cage in­tended for the worker, equipped with dif­fer­ent cy­ber­netic add-ons, that can be moved through a ware­house by the same mo­tor­ized sys­tem that shifts shelves filled with mer­chan­dise,” they write. “Here, the worker be­comes a part of a ma­chinic bal­let, held up­right in a cage which dic­tates and con­strains their move­ment.”

Ama­zon, in its patent, sug­gested us­ing what it calls a hu­man trans­port de­vice to bring work­ers near ro­bots for sit­u­a­tions like re­pair or re­moval of a mal­func­tion­ing trol­ley, or re­triev­ing items that have fallen off ro­bot-con­trolled shelves. They could also be used to cut across an off-lim­its workspace to reach a re­stroom that would oth­er­wise be a sig­nif­i­cant trip on foot.

And Ama­zon, which has turned an ob­ses­sion with ef­fi­ciency and busi­ness pro­cesses into an on­line re­tail and lo­gis­tics em­pire, en­vi­sioned plenty of au­to­ma­tion with its hu­man trans­port de­vice. In one sce­nario de­scribed by the patent, a ro­bot that has failed could alert a com­puter sys­tem, au­to­mat­i­cally gen­er­at­ing an or­der for re­pair, which it as­signs to an avail­able hu­man trans­port de­vice. Which de­vice re­ceives the or­der could be de­ter­mined by its lo­ca­tion or the sched­ule or the par­tic­u­lar skills of the hu­man lo­cated within.

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