Amazon is seeking to boost worker efficiency through a new set of patents squarely aimed at improving its inventory management system using radio frequency based tracking of a worker’s hand to monitor their performance of inventory tasks.
Of course, the only thing more troubling than robots replacing human workers is the idea of robots tracking human workers’ hands, but i) there are profit margins to be optimized and ii) this is the same concept of being under house arrest with an ankle bracelet, it just happens that Amazon wants to put the device on the worker’s wrist.
On January 30, 2018, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued Amazon two patents for wristbands that would use ultrasonic tracking technology to identify the precise location of a workers’ hand as they perform tasks within the Amazon warehouse.
- The United States Patent 9,881,276: “Ultrasonic bracelet and receiver for detecting position in 2D plane.”
- The United States Patent 9,881,277: “Wristband haptic feedback system.”
The diagram above shows how an ultrasonic wristband can track and guide the warehouse worker’s hand to a given inventory bin on a shelving unit. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)
To be sure, there is no mention of house, or rather warehouse arrest, instead the patents state that the devices are for labor-savings purposes:
“Existing approaches for keeping track of where inventory items are stored … may require the inventory system worker to perform time consuming acts beyond placing the inventory item into an inventory bin and retrieving the inventory item from the inventory bid, such as pushing a button associated with the inventory bin or scanning a barcode associated with the inventory bin. … Accordingly, improved approaches for keeping track of where an inventory item is stored are of interest.”
According to GeekWire, which first discovered the patents last week:
“The wristbands provide a no-muss, no-fuss method for verifying that the correct items are being processed. The inventors say the system circumvents the need for “computationally intensive and expensive” monitoring by means of computer vision, a la Amazon Go.
And the inventors know their way around computer vision: The patent for the ultrasonic wristband was filed by Jonathan Cohn, senior technical program manager for Amazon Go. The radio-frequency wristband system was proposed by Tye Brady, chief technologist for Amazon Robotics.”
The diagram above provides a glimpse into a "typical" Amazon warehouse while providing a rough schematic detailing how the ultrasonic inventory management system works. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)
Amazon calls the inventory management system the “Wrist band haptic feedback system” in patent number 9,881,277. The system’s radio frequency sensors track the wristband’s signal to determine where a worker’s hand is positioned, and software matches that position with the inventory bin that is supposed to be collected for processing. Haptic or kinesthetic communication applies vibrations to the worker’s wrist to guide them to the correct inventory bin.
In other words, near complete robotic control of what, at least for a few more years, are the company's human employees.
One step at a time, Skynet is taking control of humans, because ultimately it is all about maximizing efficiency: as expected, in patent 9,881,277, Amazon discusses the need to modernize legacy inventory systems and highlights the need to cut down on wasted time.
Modern inventory systems, such as those in mail order warehouses, supply chain distribution centers, airport luggage systems, and custom-order manufacturing facilities, face significant challenges in responding to requests for inventory items. As inventory systems grow, the challenges of simultaneously completing a large number of packing, storing, and other inventory-related tasks become non-trivial.
In many inventory systems, an incoming inventory item is typically stored into an inventory bin so as to be quickly retrievable in response to an order for the inventory item. An inventory management system typically stores the identification and location of the inventory bin in which the inventory item is stored for use in locating and processing the inventory item in response to an order for the inventory item. For example, an inventory system worker can pick up the incoming inventory item and place the inventory item into the inventory bin.
To keep track of where the inventory item is stored, it is important to efficiently and accurately identify the inventory bin into which the inventory item is placed. Existing approaches for keeping track of where inventory items are stored, however, may require the inventory system worker to perform time consuming acts beyond placing the inventory item into an inventory bin and retrieving the inventory item from the inventory bin, such as pushing a button associated with the inventory bin or scanning a barcode associated with the inventory bin.
And while the inventory system worker may be required to perform less time consuming tasks when a computer vision system is used to track placement of the inventory item, such a computer vision system may be computationally intensive and expensive. Accordingly, improved approaches for keeping track of where an inventory item is stored are of interest.
Alan Selby, a journalist with the Mirror newspaper in the United Kingdom, conducted a five-week uncover investigation of the working conditions inside an Amazon warehouse, wearing nothing more than a hidden camera which captured the brutal working conditions on the inside.
“One colleague was taken to the hospital by ambulance when they collapsed on the job, after struggling on despite feeling unwell,” Selby stated.
“Another ambulance was called after a girl suffered a panic attack when she was told compulsory overtime would mean her working up to 55 hours a week over Christmas.”
One worker told Selby: “Everybody suffers here. I pulled my hamstring but I just had to carry on. My friend spent two days off after she damaged her knee ligaments.”
Shelby reported that Amazon warehouse workers run in 10-hour shifts and are under constant camera surveillance. Workers are required to pick up an item for packaging every 30 seconds, with their “units per hour” displayed on a handheld monitor.
In 2015, Jeff Bezos sent out an internal memo stating that he didn’t recognize the “soulless, dystopian workplace” described by the New York Times piece on the workplace culture at Amazon. Fast forward to 2018 and Amazon’s ultrasonic wristband is about to make that “soulless, dystopian workplace” a reality.