Amazon has deployed an artificial intelligence-based system at some of its buildings, which will give “live feedback” on how its employees are social distancing while at work. Amazon said the tool is “inspired” by existing examples like radar speed check signs, and plans to open-source the software and AI. This development comes just weeks after some Amazon employees sued the company, alleging that it allowed the coronavirus to spread by mandating unsafe working conditions and prioritising productivity over precautions. We have reached out to Amazon for more details.

The system — called “Distance Assistant” — utilises cameras at its buildings to display the distance between people on a floor via a 50-inch monitor, a camera, and a “local computing device”. As people walk past the camera, the monitor will display live video with visual overlays to show if employees are within 6 feet of one another. Individuals remaining 6 feet apart will be highlighted with green circles, while those who are closer together are highlighted with red circles. For now, the system has been deployed at a “handful” of Amazon’s buildings, and the company plans to install “hundreds of these units” at other buildings in the next few weeks.

Amazon said that the “standalone unit” uses machine learning models to differentiate people from their surroundings. It also has depth sensors for accurate distance measurement. It is unclear from Amazon’s announcement whether it plans to also capture footage using the system, and we’ve asked them about it.

From the video that Amazon shared, showcasing the Distance Assistant, it wasn’t clear whether output from these screens will also be centrally monitored. It is possible that this system can be used for greater levels of surveillance at work, given that it could potentially be used to track employees’ movement through a day. This won’t be new territory for Amazon because the company, in 2018, had patented a wristband that could detect the location of warehouse employees and track their hand movements in real-time.

Amazon has halted police use of its controversial facial recognition system, Rekognition, for a year. The company didn’t reveal any detail about its plans with Rekognition during the moratorium period, but said it “might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules”, and the company “stand[s] ready to help if requested”. During the moratorium, it will continue providing the software to rights organisations such as Thorn, the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Marinus Analytics.