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Amazon finds something else AI can supposedly do well: Spotting damaged goods

Any chance of an ML model to identify labor law violations? No? Surprise

Amazon is reportedly deploying artificial intelligence to inspect goods and look for signs of damage before they are packed and shipped to people.

Jeremy Wyatt, director of applied science at Amazon Robotics, said workers today check the quality of items as they package and sort them – but they often fail to spot damaged products, since they're apparently not very common. 

"That's cognitively demanding because obviously you're looking for something that's rare and it's not your primary job," Wyatt told the Wall Street Journal. 

Fewer than one in 1,000 products are damaged, or so we're told, meaning staff probably don't encounter them much and don't pay as much attention to the problem. But Amazon processes billions of packages every year, so the number of botched items is significant. 

The software works by scanning objects placed into bins to detect signs of wear and tear at imaging stations. If an item is flagged, an Amazon employee will double check if it's broken and decide if it can be packaged and shipped or not. 

The technology has been rolled out at two warehouses so far. According to Christoph Schwerdtfeger, a software development manager at Amazon, it's three times more likely to spot damaged goods than a human employee. The AI was trained to learn how to identify common visual features for broken items by comparing images of products that were not damaged to ones that were, he said. 

Amazon is invested in deploying more technology to automate jobs that are repetitive, tedious, and have a tendency to unionize. The e-commerce giant has showcased robots designed to lift and move heavy objects, scan barcodes, or place items into carts. Machines can't perform every role, however, and work alongside humans. 

Amazon believes robots are the future, which isn't a surprise considering it has been criticized for relatively high rates of workplace injuries, faced complaints of union busting and labor law violations, and, unsurprisingly, it struggles to retain workers.

It's not just warehouse employees that are unhappy. On Wednesday, hundreds of corporate staff protested in front of its headquarters in Seattle to complain about its climate policies and having to return to their office jobs. 

The Register has asked Amazon for further comment. ®

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