Amazon is raising eyebrows with a patent filing that suggests putting human employees in cages to navigate areas populated by automated robots.

The internet giant was granted the patent in 2016, but it's dissected in a new study looking at the history and implications of Amazon's Echo, according to the Daily Mail.

The patent, titled "System and method for transporting personnel within an active workspace," envisions a system that would allow humans to safely enter areas where robots are zipping to and fro, delivering items.

It's described as a "human transport device" wherein an employee stands atop a robotic trolley, encased by a metal cage.

Advertisement

A robotic arm would be attached to the cage and operated from inside the enclosure, allowing the employee to reach for items, among other uses.

"...US patent number 9,280,157 represents an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines," the study, titled Anatomy of an AI System, explained.

"Here, the worker becomes a part of a machinic ballet, held upright in a cage which dictates and constrains their movement."

The study was authored by Kate Crawford, a Microsoft researcher and co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University, as well as Vladan Joler, a professor of new media at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia.

Amazon's enormous fulfillment centers include fenced off areas where robots ferry items from shelves and deliver them to employees waiting nearby, according to the Seattle Times.

Human employees aren't allowed into these areas as a safety precaution. Currently, if an employee enters the area, it triggers an alarm, which disables the robots, as a means of avoiding any possible collisions.

"There may be circumstances where it is necessary for human operators to traverse, or otherwise go into, an active workspace where the mobile drive units are carrying out their assigned inventory-related tasks," Amazon's patent explains.

"However, traversing an active workspace of automated mobile drive units poses safety concerns for the human operators who traverse the active workspace."

The caged design would enable employees to "get to a destination location within or across the workspace, such as a restroom located a significant distance from the user," the patent states.

It would also make it so they could complete repairs or remove malfunctioning trolleys from within the restricted area, as well as retrieve items that have fallen from shelves.

Amazon has since indicated that it has no plans to use the device in its warehouses.

"Like many companies, we file a number of forward-looking patent applications," Lindsay Campbell, an Amazon spokeswoman, told the Seattle Times.

Additionally, Dave Clark, Amazon's senior vice president of operations, denied that the system was being used by the company.

"Sometimes even bad ideas get submitted for patents," Clark wrote in a tweet. "This was never used and we have no plans for usage."

Still, it's not the first patent filed by Amazon to discuss controversial technology for use on employees.

Recent patents have described both a wrist band and augmented reality goggles that could be used to track employees' movements throughout the day.

The patent describes a "wearable computing device" that would overlay turn-by-turn directions on the goggles' screen, showing employees where to place certain objects in one of Amazon's fulfillment centers.

The goggles would connect to a computing device that's worn on the employee's body, which powers the turn-by-turn data.