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Amazon's new Distance Assistant uses AI to encourage social distancing

The monitor, camera and computer alert workers in real time if they get closer than six feet from each other.

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A look at Distance Assistant at an Amazon warehouse.


Amazon said Tuesday it's developed a new artificial intelligence system to help maintain social distancing in its warehouses, and it plans to share the underlying technology for free.

Called Distance Assistant, the tech involves a 50-inch monitor, camera and laptop set up on a mount. The camera tracks how closely people are walking near each other, showing workers walking by the device augmented-reality circles around them. The circles remain green if someone is six feet away from others but turns red if they get too close together.

The first Distance Assistant systems have already been set up in a handful of Amazon buildings, and the company said it plans to deploy hundreds of these devices in the next few weeks to provide employees with this immediate visual feedback.

The software used in Distance Assistant will be provided as open-source, so other companies can create their own similar devices without paying Amazon a licensing fee.

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The new system is another tool Amazon is using to keep its warehouses safe during the pandemic, though the company has faced lots of criticism that it's not doing enough to protect its essential employees. Several workers have publicly complained that social distancing guidelines were being used by managers inconsistently, with more writeups going to workers who have protested against Amazon. It's possible a system like Distance Assistant could help with this issue.

Distance Assistant also builds off Amazon's work with computer vision, using the concept to power its Amazon Go stores.

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