There was a 2016 Amazon patent putting workers in cages

Depending on if you see a future of robot takeovers or friendly robot colleagues, the next 10, 20, 30 years of humans learning to working alongside machines can spark optimism or dread. There are bound to be insane ideas that should never see the light of day! And in 2016, Amazon filed a patent that took human-machine cooperation to this kind of dark place.

According to a patent recently highlighted by the Seattle Times, Amazon had an idea to put humans in cages, so that they could work in robot-only zones safely and efficiently. In the patent figure, you can see a metal cage-like enclosure on top of a robotic trolley that could transport the workers around a facility. In the patent summary, the technology’s use is painted as a way to “help unnecessary downtime where no inventory-related tasks can be performed.”

Patent of worker cage not likely to actually happen

Many patent applications never see commercial use, and it appears that this patent is never going to be of them. Lindsay Campbell, an Amazon spokeswoman, told the Seattle Times that reaction to the patent use was “misguided,” and Dave Clark, who oversees operations at Amazon, went further and acknowledged it was not the best technology: “Sometimes even bad ideas get submitted for patents. This was never used and we have no plans for usage.”

But the human cage for the sake of machine efficiency gives insight into Amazon’s thinking about its priorities. In this patent vision of robot-human cooperation, humans are having their movement dictated by a company machine that is free to roam. The patent gets referenced in a recent case study on the artificial intelligence systems powering Amazon Echo by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler. There, they write that the patent represents “an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machine.” Human labor powering the wealth of companies comes at the expense of personal autonomy.

If you want to get a glimpse into the future of artificial intelligence, look into the patents and visions around them. “Dystopian futures are built upon the unevenly distributed dystopian regimes of the past and present, scattered through an array of production chains for modern technical devices,” they warn.