Amazon Blurs the Lines

Amazon has been all about automation from the beginning.

Amazon holds two patents on a wristband that senses when workers are slowing down. It vibrates to remind slackers to get back to work.

Words like “privacy” and “surveillance” tend to come up when people think about this kind of technology.

“After a year working on the floor, I felt like I had become a version of the robots I was working with,” one Amazon employee told the New York Times. “They want to turn people into machines. The robotic technology isn’t up to scratch yet, so until it is, they will use human robots.”

Is Amazon blurring the lines between people and robots? Amazon’s Alexa doesn’t listen to everything her owners say — just ask her. Alexa will explain that she just listens for “wake words” like “Alexa.” She records the command or question that follows the wake word and responds as best she can.

Alexa owners can go to Amazon’s privacy page and hear everything their particular Alexa has recorded. They can opt out of allowing their transactions with Alexa to be used for machine learning efforts.

But plenty of people feel a strong connection with their Amazon devices, and Amazon encourages that. Alexa will compliment you randomly and take you through guided meditation, among other friendly actions. With more than 70,000 different skills, Alexa can be a central part of owners’ lives.

Back on the warehouse floor, Amazon’s employees work very closely with robots. Amazon has robots take over the tasks that are boring for human beings, as well as the physically demanding ones. When they added robots that move bins in their warehouse in New Jersey, they gave the human bin-movers the option of studying to become robot operators. They oversee several robots, increasing their productivity without losing their jobs.

Those wristbands don’t just judge workers. They also give haptic clues to workers to help them find the right bins.  Maybe Amazon is treating robots as tools and helpers for humans, rather than treating humans like robots.

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