Amazon Touts AI for Social Distancing Amid Worker Complaints

Covid-19 sent Amazon scrambling to adapt its logistics facilities to contain contagion while also handling a surge in orders from customers stuck at home. Some workers say it has struck the wrong balance between profits and safety.

Amazon has vigorously defended its policies and pushed back with details of some of its Covid-19 safety measures. The latest reveal is an artificial intelligence system that analyzes images from security cameras in Amazon facilities and alerts management of potential social distancing violations.

Proxemics, as the system is called, was built by AI experts in Amazon’s robotics division and deployed in mid-March. It now operates in more than 1,000 Amazon buildings around the world, one of several high-tech Amazon projects to monitor social distancing in its facilities.

The system grabs images from security cameras every few minutes and discards those without any people in view. Algorithms automatically blur out any people visible to protect privacy and select any in which people appear to be too close together, referring those to human reviewers elsewhere. Because the software is analyzing images from cameras that don't directly measure distance, it uses the apparent size of people in the frame and the number of pixels between them to flag possible violations. When a reviewer sees cause for concern in a photo, they include the details in a regular report sent to building managers that summarizes recent social distancing violations in their facility.

Amazon workers like this one are supposed to wear masks and observe social distancing.

Courtesy of Amazon

A second feature alerts managers in a building immediately if a camera sees 15 or more people at the same time and a reviewer confirms it. That aims to provide a quick response to temporary chokepoints causing employees to bunch up, such as at a glitchy temperature checkpoint. Amazon says Proxemics is used only for Covid-19 safety; the company referred to the software in an April blog post but hasn’t previously detailed its workings.

Brad Porter, vice president for robotics at Amazon, says data from Proxemics has helped building managers identify places where additional changes were needed to protect workers, such as installing additional plastic barriers between workstations or adjusting walking lanes marked in tape.

He says the number of incidents detected quickly fell in late March and early April as facilities adapted to the Covid-19 era and Proxemics helped managers nudge workers into better obeying the rules. “It really signaled to people in the buildings that we were serious about social distancing,” Porter says. “Now people embrace social distancing, but in March we were still trying to get across to people that you have to take it super seriously.”