Companies love using the latest and greatest technology to keep track of employees, even when they’re at home. But Amazon’s new idea goes to extremes to treat employees like fleshy robots. The Seattle-based company was just granted two patents for employee wristbands that look like something from dystopian science fiction.
Image: US Patent and Trademark Office
The two new patents, first spotted by Geekwire, are for wristbands that track where a given warehouse workers’ hands are at all times. You read that correctly. I have seen the future, and it’s just rows and rows of low-paid workers in endless warehouses being told to stop picking their noses. Or to get back from their bathroom break, as it were.
In theory, the wristbands are designed to track where an employee’s hands are in relation to inventory bins and even provide haptic feedback when a worker is putting something in the incorrect bin. Which is to say that the wristband could nudge you like a Nintendo 64 Rumble Pak whenever you were doing something wrong. (Or, I guess, it could hypothetically “zap” you if our imaginations were to go full dystopian and add some tasers.)
The patents were originally filed in 2016 and were granted just yesterday, and it should be noted that Amazon has made no announcements about actually manufacturing the devices. They’re simply patented designs. For now.
As you can see for yourself in the patent filings, the system consists of three parts, including an “ultrasonic unit” for the hand (that’s the wristband), ultrasonic transducers placed around the work environment, and a “management module” to track the activity of the worker. The patent filing hints at the fact that this is all more or less a holdover system until robots can become nimble enough to automate the entire process completely.
So would a system such as this be legal? Absolutely, under current US law, which is where they’d likely be implemented before they ever came to Australia. And Amazon has a history of winning when the company’s workers try to fight back.
Amazon rather famously won a 2014 US Supreme Court case brought by warehouse workers who were being searched for stolen goods every shift. It wasn’t so much that the workers objected about being searched, but rather that they were spending as long as 25 minutes waiting in security lines without pay. The court ruled that they had no right to get paid for their time while waiting to leave work. And given the current conservative makeup of the US Supreme Court, don’t bet on any pro-worker judgements about surveillance devices any time soon either.
We can’t say that we weren’t warned about the employer surveillance complex. We’ve seen it pop up repeatedly in predictions from the early 2000s, including this futuristic concept video from Accenture in 2003. Everything in that prediction, from the name badges to the location monitoring is a reality here in 2018.
It’s becoming more and more common for companies to monitor their employees through invasive technology, as there are virtually no laws to stop it. And with Amazon growing and cities continuing to grovel at its feet, it only makes sense that the Everything Store would lead the way.
Again, Amazon hasn’t announced that they’re going to make every employee wear a wristband, but many warehouse workers already have devices that monitor their moves. If these patents are any indication, the future looks even darker for the blue-collar worker.
Update 4:25pm February 8: An Amazon spokesperson reached out with a comment.
“The speculation about this patent is misguided. Every day at companies around the world, employees use handheld scanners to check inventory and fulfill orders. This idea, if implemented in the future, would improve the process for our fulfillment associates. By moving equipment to associates’ wrists, we could free up their hands from scanners and their eyes from computer screens.”