Amazon hopes AI will help enforce social distancing at its warehouses

An AI-powered AR display lets workers know if they're too close to one another.


Amazon has created a new AI called the Distance Assistant to help its fulfillment facility employees keep a safe distance from one another during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Using a time-of-flight sensor similar to the depth-sensing cameras you'll find on modern smartphones like the Galaxy S20, the assistant measures the distance between employees. The AI component is there to help it differentiate people from the background. What the AI sees is then displayed on a 50-inch screen for workers to glance at as they pass high-traffic areas.

The final piece the puzzle is an augmented reality overlay. In a kind of magic-mirror like way, employees will see a green or red circle around them on the display. As you might have guessed, green means they're at least six feet apart from one of their co-workers, while red means they're too close. The entire system runs on a local computer and doesn't need assistance from the cloud.

The company says it has deployed the technology in a handful of its facilities, with plans to roll out "hundreds" of more units "over the next few weeks." It says employees like “getting immediate visual feedback,” but didn’t provide data that shows how effective the measure is at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Amazon also plans to open-source the software so that other companies can use it as well.

While Amazon's use of AI and AR is interesting here, it may be the latest example of a company attempting to apply a technological solution to what is ultimately a policy issue. A recent lawsuit filed by workers at the company's Staten Island warehouse accused Amazon of failing to follow CDC and New York state public health coronavirus guidelines. The lawsuit also said the company discourages employees from practicing "basic hygiene" if it means those workers need to spend a moment away from their stations.