Amazon's not saying its warehouse staff are dumb... but it feels they need artificial intelligence to understand what 'six feet' means

The yellow markings on the floor aren't enough for real neural networks


Vid Amazon has tapped up artificial intelligence to help its warehouse employees keep six feet apart to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Specifically, the internet giant has produced something it's called Distance Assistant, which combines machine-learning and augmented reality to analyze live camera footage of people walking around its buildings. A virtual green circle is overlaid around a person in the images, and turns red if two people are too close to each other, reminding them what six-feet of separation means.

Distance Assistant runs on laptops and displays the real-time analysis on monitors dotted around Amazon’s warehouses for staff to see. Brad Porter, vice president and distinguished engineer on Amazon’s Robotics division, described the software as a “magic-mirror-like tool.” Snark aside, it's at least a real-world demonstration of computer-vision technology, though we're not quite sure it needed the full media fanfare around it.

“Working backwards from a concept of immediate visual feedback, and inspired by existing examples like radar speed check signs, our 'Distance Assistant' provides employees with live feedback on social distancing via a 50 inch monitor, a camera, and a local computing device,” he said this week.

The images from the live camera feed are processed by machine-learning algorithms to detect and track people. Depth sensors in the cameras calculate the distance between these moving targets. Here’s a demonstration of how it works:

Youtube Video

The software is only deployed in areas where there is a high traffic of people walking around, such as corridors or around entrances. It’s up to staff members themselves to take action to maintain six feet apart from one another.

Porter said Distance Assistant has been introduced to a few warehouses, and Amazon plans to implement hundreds of units in other locations in the next few weeks. “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 added.

Coincidentally Amazon was sued by a group of staff working at its New York One warehouse earlier this month for allegedly awful working conditions that failed to protect them from contracting COVID-19. ®


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