Amazon is under the spotlight for once again, and it’s for all the wrong reasons.
Kate Crawford is a renowned Australian academic, principal researcher at Microsoft Research and co-founder and director at the AI Now Institute at NYU. In broad terms, her work mainly focuses on the intersection between humans and technology.
Vladan Joler is a professor at the Academy of Arts at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia and founder of SHARE Foundation, a lauded research and data investigation lab known for touching themes like digital labour exploitation.
The two respected academics wrote a piece called “Anatomy of AI”, where they point out there’s a new form of extractivism – the extraction and sale of the Earth’s natural resources, vital in colonial times – that’s taking place in this era of artificial intelligence and big data.
The researchers showcase in their paper a series of cases where the development of technology, the Amazon Echo in particular, affects global capital, labour and the environment.
In one of their examples, they highlight a frightening Amazon patent where the tech giant devised a robotic cage equipped with different cybernetic add-ons. The intention was to throw a worker in there all day, held upright and constrained by the movements of the metallic enclosure.
The researchers describe the chilling invention as “a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines”.
The outrage against this surreal patent has prompted Amazon officials to publically backpedal from their gadget.
Amazon executive David Clark wrote on Twitter that the company doesn’t plan on using the design.
“Sometimes even bad ideas get submitted for patents,” he said.
Sometimes even bad ideas get submitted for patents. 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 all robotic drive units in their proximity to stop moving.
— Dave Clark (@davehclark) September 8, 2018
The strange patent is another recent episode that highlights the nefarious working conditions that Amazon employees have to endure.
While Amazon chief Jeff Bezos has been recently reported as the wealthiest man in modern history, with a net worth of nearly US$150 billion dollars (AU$208 billion) there are reports that 1 in 10 of their staff in Ohio receives public assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits program. These benefits are only available to individuals and families living below the poverty line.
Amazon employees at fulfilment centres elsewhere have previously complained of dangerously hot facilities and inhumane treatment. English Journalist James Bloodworth worked six months undercover in an Amazon fulfilment centre in the UK and talked about his experience in his latest book Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.
In one of the most shocking recollections of his time at Amazon, Bloodworth says employees were so frightened of getting penalized or losing their jobs for taking a toilet break, he once found an old coke bottle filled with urine.
A 2015 New York Times report revealed the harsh working conditions also extended to corporate employees, who denounced strenuous 80-hour weeks and frequent sightings of workers crying at their desks.
The Crawford and Joler paper cites a keen reflection of today’s bottleneck economy.
“The vanishingly few at the top of the fractal pyramid of value extraction live in extraordinary wealth and comfort. But the majority of the pyramids are made from the dark tunnels of mines, radioactive waste lakes, discarded shipping containers, and corporate factory dormitories.”