This time, artificial intelligence is literally taking jobs.
Documents obtained by The Verge show how Amazon used a computer system to automatically track and fire hundreds of fulfillment center employees between for failing to meet productivity quotas — a grim glimpse of a future in which AI is your boss.
While not every decision was made by a computer system, the documents — including a signed letter by an Amazon attorney describing the system — reveal how deeply automated the process really is. It’s not clear whether Amazon is still using the system.
“Amazon’s system tracks the rates of each individual associate’s productivity,” reads the letter as quoted by The Verge, “and automatically generates any warnings or terminations regarding quality or productivity without input from supervisors.”
After this story ran, Amazon spokesperson Ashley Robinson reached out with a statement that pushed back against The Verge‘s reporting — but failed to provide specific examples of inaccuracies.
“Similar to many companies, we have performance expectations regardless of whether they are corporate or fulfillment center employees,” read the statement. “We support people who do not perform to the levels expected of them with dedicated coaching to help them improve and be successful in their career at Amazon. We would never dismiss an employee without first ensuring that they had received our fullest support, including dedicated coaching to help them improve and additional training. Since we’re a company that continues to grow, it’s our business objective to ensure long-term career development opportunities for our employees.”
Regardless, Amazon’s fulfillment centers have seen a lot of automation over the past decade. A complex system of warehouse robots have been replacing jobs — while also sometimes creating new ones.
Working conditions are infamously terrible at the online retailer: an anonymous employee wrote for the Guardian last year about unusually strenuous demands the company places on its warehouse workers.
“Through the use of digital trackers and indicators, our workday is managed down to the second,” the op-ed read.
But the automated tracking-and-firing system sounds even more egregious — placing power over employment in the hands of an AI that tracks invasive details like the amount of time employees spend “off task.”
“One of the things that we hear consistently from workers is that they are treated like robots in effect because they’re monitored and supervised by these automated systems,” Amazon critic Stacy Mitchell told The Verge. “They’re monitored and supervised by robots.”
Editor’s note 4/26: this story has been updated with a statement from an Amazon spokesperson.
READ MORE: How Amazon automatically tracks and fires warehouse workers for ‘productivity’ [The Verge]
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