Artificial Intelligence Meets Social Distancing

Will Amazon’s Distance Assistant become a workplace norm?

As the pandemic enters its next phase and businesses begin to reopen around the globe, companies are having to rethink the layouts of their offices and operational processes to ensure safe working conditions amid the health crisis.

Temperature checks, facial masks, hand sanitizer at workstations, test-and-trace programmes, as well as the shut-down of touch screens, canteens and in some cases meeting rooms, are all being considered as part of companies’ workplace policy for the future.

Businesses are also turning to new technologies in their response, and one area that’s been getting a big boost over the few past months as a result of the changes from the pandemic is artificial intelligence (AI) (see AI and the Year Ahead: What Now?). Natural language processing systems are proving valuable in contact centres, on websites and in workflow and process automation. Additionally, image systems are being examined for a range of areas including touchless identity systems, remote inspection, track-and-trace applications, temperature monitoring and above all, in helping to implement social distancing in physical workspaces.

One of the most interesting examples of these trends emerged on Tuesday, when Amazon announced it will deploy an AI-based monitoring system in its warehouses that it calls Distance Assistant. The solution uses a camera equipped with Amazon’s Rekognition image-recognition technology, along with depth sensors and augmented reality, to automatically measure the distance between people through a video feed displayed on a 50-inch monitor. Employees walking past the camera are highlighted with green circles if they keep six feet apart and a red circle if they’re closer.

Distance Assistant acts as a visual marker on how to maintain a safe gap and sends an alert when workers aren’t properly following social distancing guidelines as they walk through a warehouse. Based on trials at a few of its warehouses, Amazon will roll the system out to “hundreds” of its facilities.

Amazon has also open-sourced the solution in the hope that more companies will deploy it to improve health and safety, and to show insurers and regulators that they’re monitoring and enforcing safe distancing practices. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, currently advises that keeping six feet away from another person helps prevent the spread of the disease.

Will Distance Assistant Succeed?

The unveiling comes at a crucial time for Amazon as it faces intense scrutiny from US lawmakers and unions about whether it’s doing enough to protect its staff from the virus. Earlier this month, three employees in Amazon’s New York City warehouse filed a lawsuit alleging the company didn’t follow public safety guidelines for Covid-19. Amazon refuted the claim and pointed to extra measures it has taken to clean facilities and check employees for symptoms.

Against this backdrop, all eyeballs will be on how well Distance Assistant fares in the market. The essential components of the system — depth sensor technology and augmented reality on one hand, and vision AI on the other — aren’t new. Amazon’s image-detection technology is being used in its Amazon Go stores and by customers like NASCAR. Despite the recent controversies about facial recognition, a branch of the technology, which prompted Amazon to ban the use of its Rekognition software in police departments for a year, Amazon’s vision AI is major contender in the market.

To a large extent, success will be determined by developers embracing the technology and customizing the open-source tools for their specific purposes. Invariably, there will also be some implementation challenges that the average company will have to deal with. But although this type of innovation is still in its early days, especially for industrial and warehouse settings, Amazon said that its employees responded positively to Distance Assistant in its warehouses. It certainly has the experience to make it work on a wider scale.

A Wave of Innovation Coming to Warehouses and Workplaces

After years of experimentation and some superficial uses, now could be the time that AI proves its worth, as it’s being applied in practical ways to keep people safe amid the pandemic. But what Distance Assistant shows above all is that we’re at the beginning of a wave of innovation that will shape industries and workplaces, and that will usher in the next chapter of work in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

To enable the socially distanced workplace of the future, the bottom line is that working environments have to get smarter to become safer in the next phase of work.

Amazon appears to be at the front of this trend. This crisis could turn into AI’s finest hour.