Robots will probably kill us all one day — but first, they’ll put us in cages. A truly forward-thinking entrepreneur would get in on this exciting opportunity to grab the first-mover advantage in the cutting edge field of robot slave/worker drone relationships … and a truly forward-thinking entrepreneur did.
Jeff Bezos, come on down!
In 2016, one of the sentient organ banks from Amazon’s terrifying legal division filed a patent application to secure the intriguing idea of caging warehouse workers in the Beast of Bezos’s fulfillment centres. Not because they might run away when they realised what sort of gig they’d signed on for, but because killer robots on the warehouse floor might hyper-efficiently package them up and despatch them in a small cardboard box, overnight, anywhere in the continental US.
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Amazon decided they had to cage the workers in order to free them from the dangers of Amazon’s ever-growing fleet of robots.
The reputation of the retail giant is such that when the patent was noticed, people assumed the next stage of capitalism was simply upon us. Two AI researchers — Vladan Joler and Professor Kate Crawford — who discovered the system, wrote in a paper that the cage was “an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines.”
It seemed to presage the inevitable day when some tech-forward one-percenter decided it would be even more efficient to cage the customer as well, so that worker drone and consumer slave were chained to together in a virtuous circle of production and consumption from which there could be no possibility of escape.
Even the ’Zon seemed to understand it might not be a good look, with Senior Vice President of Operations, Dave Clark, tweeting an admission that “Sometimes even bad ideas get submitted for patents.”
The cage, he assured a mortified human race, “was never used and we have no plans for usage”.
The starkly dystopian drawings submitted with the patent make the term “Orwellian” seem an understatement. Even George Orwell’s hapless Winston Smith had enough room in his slave pod for a big TV and a sad lounge on which to drink his Victory Gin.
Even though the cage was explicitly intended to improve worker safety in areas with high numbers of fast-moving and possibly murderous robots, the immediate and horrified reactions recalled another ill-considered design move by a company in another field: Ryan Air’s altogether serious plan for ‘standing room only’ aircraft, with “standing berths, handrails, and straps”.
In that case, the redesign really was about maximising profit, and the airline company had quite an advanced plan to introduce the system, only to be thwarted by regulators.