Amazon's patent that puts workers in cages.
The key to run a successful business, if you ask the big players, they’ll tell you, resides in how nice and friendly of a work environment you’re able to create for the employees. Well, most of them. Amazon is one company that differs from this methodology completely. The no-retreat no-surrender work culture that it instills in its employees have had the company wrapped up in controversies for the good part of their existence. Bob Olson, a former Amazon Books Marketing employee, said that "nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk." (source)
However, the latest news regarding the Company’s intentions to make their employees work in cages, seems drastic even for Amazon standards. In 2016, a patent was granted to Amazon by the U.S Patent Office which hinted on an enclosed structure meant for its employees to work in. The patent shows a cage built for a human working in robot work zones, and is mounted on a robot trolley, similar to the ones used in amazon warehouses to move shelving. Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler were the two Artificial Intelligence researchers that highlighted this patent in a study. In their analysis, they noted “an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines.”(source)
Here, the worker becomes a part of a machinic ballet, held upright in a cage which dictates and constrains their movement.” (source)
As soon as this study was reported by news outlets, it caused a public outburst on the internet. Here’s a tweet by Amazon senior vice president of operations Dave Clark, explaining how this patent was a bad idea, and that they never implemented the technology, nor do they have any plans to do so in the future -
Sometimes even bad ideas get submitted for patents. This was never used and we have no plans for usage. We developed a far better solution which is a small vest associates can wear that cause all robotic drive units in their proximity to stop moving.
— Dave Clark (@davehclark) September 8, 2018
Originally, this model was designed in order to ensure employee safety when they enter the robot-only zones in Amazon’s highly-automated depots to make repairs, or pick up dropped objects. 750 pound robots frequently scoot around the area, surrounded by high chain-link fences. If an unauthorized human strays into the robot-only zone, an alarm is triggered and the devices are designed to shut down to avoid colliding with the person. Amazon, in its patent, suggested a way that could diminish the 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 workspace,” says the patent
Lindsay Campbell, an Amazon spokesperson believes that the opinions centering the company’s use of the patent were in fact “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 cage-like device is not in use in any Amazon fulfillment centers, Campbell said.
But this is not the first time Amazon has tried to come up with a rather peculiar business plan. Other amazon patents that managed to create some buzz around, include wristbands to track workers’ hand movements, drones that can drop packages from 25 feet in the air, or ones that could link themselves up to form a kind of floating warehouse.
Be that as it may, Amazon’s business methods may be harsh on its employees but they sure are effective. With its annual revenue increased by 27 percent, and the latest quarter fetching them a record setting $2.5 billion in profit, they prove that it’s not always the warm and fuzzy methods that help bring in the surplus.