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Warehouse workers confined in cages? That’s the dark vision evoked by an essay delving into the worries that come along with the development of artificial-intelligence devices such as the Amazon Echo speaker.

“Anatomy of an AI System” was published on Friday by the AI Now Institute and Share Lab — and it’s already gotten a rise from the executive in charge of Amazon’s distribution system, who says the cage concept never ended up being used.

Human transport device
Diagrams show the design of a proposed human transport device, as seen from the side at left and from the top at right. The patented concept was never turned into an actual device. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO).

The 7,300-word essay was written by Kate Crawford, who is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research as well as co-founder and co-director of New York University’s AI Now Institute; and Vladan Joler, director of the Share Foundation and a professor at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia.

Crawford and Joler focused on the human and industrial angles behind the Echo device, rather than strictly on the computer science behind artificial intelligence. The topics range from the extraction of raw materials that go into the electronics, to the labor that’s required to build the devices, to the roles played by Amazon Web Services, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing network and the Amazon distribution system.

“At every level, contemporary technology is deeply rooted in and running on the exploitation of human bodies,” the authors wrote.

Amazon’s patent for a human transport device, sought in 2013 and published in 2016, drew special attention. The patent envisions a cagelike enclosure, mounted on top of a robotic transporter that’s similar to the robots currently used to move items around in Amazon’s fulfillment centers. A manipulator arm could be attached to the device and operated from inside the enclosure.

Amazon’s inventors said the device was designed to keep workers safe if they had to cross paths with warehouse robots that could pose an injury hazard — for example, when picking up fallen items, dealing with a malfunctioning robot or crossing an off-limits area to get to a restroom.

The device would allow workers “to traverse an active workspace in a minimally intrusive manner while maintaining safety of the user while he/she is within the active workspace,” they said.

Crawford and Joler, in contrast, saw the patent as “an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines.”

“It depicts a metal cage intended for the worker, equipped with different cybernetic add-ons, that can be moved through a warehouse by the same motorized system that shifts shelves filled with merchandise,” they wrote. “Here, the worker becomes a part of a machinic ballet, held upright in a cage which dictates and constrains their movement.”

After The Seattle Times published an article focusing on the patent, Amazon pointed out that the concept was never implemented.

“Sometimes even bad ideas get submitted for patents,” Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president for worldwide operations, said in a tweet. “This was never used and we have no plans for usage. We developed a far better solution which is a small vest associates can wear that cause[s] all robotic drive units in their proximity to stop moving.”

The human transport device is by no means the only Amazon concept that hasn’t come to fruition. (At least not yet.) Check out this Top Ten list of weird Amazon patent applications:

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