A wearable device may help warehouse workers avoid injuries.

What’s new: Modjoul, maker of a system that evaluates risks to people engaged in physical labor, received an undisclosed sum from Amazon as part of a $1 billion investment in technologies that might enhance the retailer giant’s operations.

How it works: Mounted on a belt, the device monitors the wearer's behavior and surrounding conditions. External software analyzes the data and directs the device to deliver feedback. Supervisors can view the results on a software dashboard.

  • The device uses six sensors to monitor, in real time, the user’s posture, movement, and location as well as ambient noise, lighting, temperature, and air quality.
  • Machine learning models that run in the cloud assign each user a score. For instance, lifting a heavy object using muscles in the lower back yields a lower score than using leg muscles.
  • Given a high score, the system delivers feedback such as a haptic vibration that signals a hazardous motion. It may alert supervisors of danger signs, for instance if a wearer stops moving or air quality degrades.
  • The belts are equipped with radio-frequency identification tags, allowing the system to track their locations. The system can send an alert if a worker isn’t wearing a belt in a designated area or if a belt leaves the facility.

Behind the news: Modjoul is one of five companies that received investments last week from Amazon’s Industrial Innovation Fund. Several are developing AI products. For instance, California-based Vimaan is building a computer vision system to track inventories in real time by scanning barcodes, expiration dates, and serial numbers. BionicHIVE, an Israeli startup, is working on robots that use cameras and other sensors to track the locations of products on warehouse shelves.

Why it matters: AI holds potential to make traditional industries more efficient and hopefully more humane. This system’s ability to recognize hazards related to physical posture means that everyone on the factory floor can benefit from moment-to-moment ergonomic evaluation. Protecting workers from injury is a win-win for employers and employees.

We’re thinking: Monitoring workers raises obvious concerns about privacy and fairness. While we hope that employers will use such technology to improve the lives of workers, we also see potential for abuse by managers who, say, aim to maximize productivity at the cost of driving people to exhaustion. Automated monitoring of worker performance demands clear policies that govern its use, periodic auditing that documents its benefits and exposes its harms, and transparent mechanisms that make employers accountable for its impacts. Amazon is in an ideal position to take the lead in developing such policies and procedures.

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