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Smart AI-powered cameras that can tell how close you are to other people may be the answer to maintaining social distancing as the US reopens


Amazon Distance Assistant

  • Companies are investing in AI-equipped cameras to help enforce social distancing measures as the economy begins to reopen.
  • Tech firms like Amazon and Motorola Solutions have developed camera technology that uses AI to help employers tell whether employees are maintaining a safe social distance in the workplace.
  • Experts also say the tech can be useful in retail by helping store managers see whether customers are abiding by social distancing guidelines.
  • The tech may pose some challenges in practice, however, as it could raise privacy concerns and may be vulnerable to false positives. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As businesses across the United States have gradually begun to reopen, a growing number of companies are investing in camera technology powered by artificial intelligence to help enforce social distancing measures when people may be standing too closely together.

"[If] I want to manage the distance between consumers standing in a line, a manager can't be in all places at once,"  Leslie Hand, vice president of retail insights for the International Data Corporation, told Business Insider. "Having a digital helper that's advising you when folks are perhaps in need of some advice is useful."

Businesses throughout the country have started operating again under restrictions, such as enforcing social distancing measures, requiring customers to wear masks, and reducing capacity. New York City, which was the epicenter of the virus' outbreak in the US, is set to enter Phase II of its reopening plan on Monday.

The White House's employer guidelines for all phases of reopening include developing policies informed by best practices, particularly social distancing. And some experts believe smart cameras can help retailers and other companies detect whether such protocols are being followed. 

"There's some technology coming out on the horizon that will be able to be incorporated into the nuts and bolts that you already have in your store," Barrie Scardina, head of Americas retail for commercial real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, said to Business Insider.

Some companies have already begun experimenting with such technologies. Amazon said on June 16 that it developed a camera system that's being implemented in some warehouses to detect whether workers are following social distancing guidelines. The company's so-called "Distance Assistant" consists of a camera, a 50-inch monitor, and a local computing device, which uses depth sensors to calculate distances between employees. 

When a person walks by the camera, the monitor would show whether that person is standing six feet apart from nearby colleagues by overlaying a green or red circle around the person. Green would indicate the person is properly socially distanced, while red would suggest the people on camera may be too close together. Amazon is open-sourcing the technology so that other companies can implement it as well. 

Motorola Solutions also announced new analytics technology in May that enables its Avigilon security cameras to detect whether people are social distancing and wearing masks. The system uses AI to collect footage and statistical patterns that can be used to provide notifications to organizations about when guidelines around wearing face masks or honoring social distancing measures are being breached. 

Pepper Construction, a Chicago-based construction company, has also begun using software from a company called SmartVid.io to keep an eye on where workers may be grouping, as Reuters reported in late April.

Scardina offered some examples illustrating how smart cameras can help retailers enforce social distancing. Workers can use such technologies to see where customers are clustering so that they can make decisions about how to arrange furniture and fixtures within the store. If a table needs to be moved further away from another display because customers don't have space to stand six feet apart, AI camera technology can help retailers spot this.

As far as how widespread that technology will become in stores, Scardina says it will depend on factors such as a retailer's budget and the size of the shop. 

While more companies may be investing in either developing or implementing new camera technologies, there will inevitably be challenges that arise when putting them into practice, says Pieter J. den Hamer, senior director of artificial intelligence for Gartner Research.

Not only could implementing such tech raise privacy concerns, but there are also practical limitations. A camera may not know if two people standing close together belong to the same household, for example.

All 50 states have reopened at some capacity, putting an end to stay-at-home orders that had been in effect since March to curb the coronavirus' spread, and some states are now seeing a spike in cases. The New York Times recently reported that at least 14 states have experienced positive cases that have outpaced the average number of administered tests.

The coronavirus has killed at least 117,000 people in the US and infected more than 2.1 million as of June 18, according to the Times, and experts predict there will be a second wave. But President Trump has said the country won't be closing again

"It's a very, very complex debate full of dilemmas," den Hamer said. "Should we prioritize opening up the economy, or should we prioritize the protection of our privacy?"

SEE ALSO: 'Cleanse portals' that zap away germs with ultraviolet light are starting to appear as businesses begin to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic

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