Charged Up: Amazon's warehouse wearable patents are terrifying

They really are the worst
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If I was an employee in an Amazon warehouse, I'd be fired within the hour. I'm slow, I take too many breaks and I've been late to work for 30 straight months.

Make that fired within the minute if Amazon's latest wearable tech patents ever make their way to workers' wrists. If you were wondering whether the gadget dystopia is here and now, I invite you to cosy up with United States Patents 9,881,276 and 9,881,277 both filed by Amazon in March 2016 and published last week. That's right I'm getting Charged Up about a pair of patents.

Read this: Chinese police are using face recognition smartglasses

They detail a wearable system, designed to replace a handheld scanner, in which a warehouse 'picker' would wear an ultrasonic bracelet with a haptic feedback system. The bracelet would be able to send a pulse to a receiver on an inventory bin in order to detect the worker's position and the movements of their hands.

That's not all. A grip sensor would also be able to determine if the worker is holding an item or not. And the bracelet would vibrate to guide the worker to the right position or buzz if the worker makes a mistake such as putting an item in the wrong bin. The overall aim is "to monitor performance of an inventory system task."

Charged Up: Amazon's warehouse wearable patents are terrifying

Amazon also makes its feelings known on the relative usefulness of people and computers in the background to one of the patents:

"Existing approaches for keeping track of where inventory items are stored, however, may require the inventory system worker to perform time consuming acts... such as pushing a button associated with the inventory bin or scanning a barcode associated with the inventory bin. And while the inventory system worker may be required to perform less time consuming tasks when a computer vision system is used to track placement of the inventory item, such a computer vision system may be computationally intensive and expensive."

I mean, bloody hell.

Translation: humans are cheap and their squishy meat arms and marvellous eyeballs are great for moving and seeing stock but the time it takes them to scan a barcode or push a button is money.

Strap this ultrasonic tracker to a human with low pay, high targets, no unions and, by most accounts, poor working conditions and Bezos can build an army of hyper-efficient robo-pickers.

This isn't where wearable tech was supposed to go.

Charged Up: Amazon's warehouse wearable patents are terrifying

Sure, Amazon hasn't implemented this idea yet - though Amazon, Tesco etc do already use similar portable/handheld/wearable devices in their warehouses. This tech is not new as the Motorola WT4000 (above) proves. And sure, an Amazon spokesperson told CNN that the "speculation about this patent is misguided" with the aim being to free up worker's hands from scanners.

And sure, there's no actual mention of penalising workers who are too slow/inefficient based on the bracelet data. But one look at the language in the patents themselves shows that freeing up hands is far from the whole story.

Maybe a company without an alleged history of timed toilet breaks would get better PR from this sort of efficiency-focused connected tech. But my feeling is that this would be a few steps too far. If workers have any say in the matter, I can't think of one industry that would voluntarily go for wearable tech that monitors their performance all day, every day. Not to mention the fact that this system even manages to remove the satisfaction of actively checking off (scanning/pushing) one item on the worker's Sisyphean to-do lists.

I've actually written about the danger of these all seeing wearable gadgets before - when wearable data might not be on the individual/employee's side. Not to get all preachy but it's something anyone with an Amazon account needs to be aware of. This is why everything is so cheap on Amazon. Because Amazon thinks that its workers pushing a button is time wasted.


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Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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