Amazon Got a Patent to Put Workers in Cages. Now the Company Says It Was a ‘Bad’ Idea

September 11, 2018, 9:33 PM UTC

No one ever said working at Amazon was a relaxed experience. The e-commerce giant is well known for its taxing workplace culture, but putting warehouse workers in cages seems a bit extreme, even for Amazon.

But a patent, granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to Amazon in 2016, would make that dystopian cubicle a reality. The patent shows a cage built for a human working in robot work zones, a small work station atop a robot trolley like the kind already used in Amazon warehouses to move shelving. The patent was highlighted in a study by two artificial intelligence (AI) researchers, New York University distinguished research professor Kate Crawford and director of the research lab Share Foundation Vladan Joler. In their analysis, Crawford and Joler noted “an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines.”

When the study was reported by news outlets including The Seattle Times, there was (predictable) blowback on social media. Amazon senior vice president of operations Dave Clark even weighed in on Twitter, explaining that even “bad” ideas are submitted for patents, and that the company has no plans to implement the cages.

Amazon spokesperson Lindsay Campbell added that speculation about the company’s use of the controversial patent was “misguided.”

It’s easy to see why consumers would be skeptical. Amazon has come under fire for workplace conditions for years, from the stress of C-suite pressure to grueling conditions in factories in China manufacturing Echo devices and in U.S. Amazon warehouses. In 2015, an exposé about the hard-charging environment at Amazon Web Services (AWS) also looked at how engineers and managers were expected to work long hours, including weekends and being available by email 24/7. Amazon workers have been striking as well, including across Europe this summer around Amazon’s Prime Day.