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Amazon’s Warehouses May Be Worse Than You Thought

An undercover report from one journalist paints his time at a U.K. distribution center as a prison shift.

Ain’t No Stopping Us Now

Prime Cut: Wasn’t all that long ago that Amazon was spilling red ink all over the place in pursuit of building out its e-commerce, streaming content and Cloud computing businesses. All that’s changed now that the company has attained critical mass, as its first quarter financials show.

TWICE Take: Red ink has turned into black gold, as profits hit $1.6 billion for the three months ended March 31, a stunning 121 percent gain. The top line was equally heady, with net sales up 43 percent to $51 billion, driven by a 46 percent increase in North American e-commerce sales (to $30.7 billion), and a 49 percent spike in AWS Cloud services revenue, to $5.4 billion. And revenue is sure to surge again next quarter, after a $20 hike in the annual Prime membership fee, from $99 to $119, goes into effect May 11.

See the full story at TWICE.

Amazon’s Warehouses May Be Worse Than You Thought

Prime Cut: Amazon’s lofty technologies have long had a stark counterpoint in its distribution centers, where workers have suffered heat stroke in un-air-conditioned facilities and a disproportionate number require food stamps to help make ends meet.

TWICE Take: Now comes an undercover report from author and journalist James Bloodworth, who described his time at a U.K. DC as a prison shift, although it sounds more akin to the dystopian societies of “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Among his reports: Handheld devices are said to monitor your whereabouts and count down the time you take to pick and scan an item. Bathroom breaks reportedly require passing through airport-type security, where belts are removed and pockets emptied. Amazon jargon is said to be mandatory with posters reminding workers that they’re happy.

And, finally, employees reportedly get sacked after earning six “strikes” for minor infractions like calling in sick or returning 30 seconds late from the bathroom. Restrooms can be the equivalent of multiple soccer fields away, prompting some workers to urinate in bottles rather than risk strikes, Bloodworth said.

See the full story at Gizmodo UK

Say What?

Prime Cut: One of the advantages of Google Assistant is the system’s ability to recognize natural spoken language, without all the tricky command phrases required by Alexa to execute the platform’s 40,000 third-party apps (“Alexa, enable [insert obscure, hard-to-remember skill name]”).

TWICE Take: But now comes word from Ruhi Sarikaya, who heads Amazon’s Alexa Brain group, that the pervasive virtual assistant will soon receive an update that will make conversations more natural, its skills more readily accessed and memory vastly enhanced. The latter means that Alexa can now store and recall any information upon request, like birthdays or street addresses, and can accept follow-up questions without having to repeat the wake word “Alexa.” 

The feature, called “context carryover,” employs deep-learning models applied to the spoken language understanding pipeline Sarikaya said. “Skills arbitration, context carryover and the memory feature are early instances of a class of work Amazon scientists and engineers are doing to make engaging with Alexa more friction-free,” he told a World Wide Web Conference in France.

See the full story at TechCrunch

Dots For Tots

Prime Cut: The innovations came fast and furious from Amazon last week, beginning with FreeTime on Alexa, a forthcoming complimentary children’s service for Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Plus owners that includes parental controls, activity reviews, age-appropriate Alexa interactions (like knock-knock jokes) and positive reinforcement when kids say “please” while issuing voice commands.

TWICE Take: FreeTime, along with a paid FreeTime Unlimited version, will come embedded in Echo Dot Kids Edition, a new iteration for the juvvie set that begins shipping on May 9. Priced at $80 — 30 bucks more than a regular Echo Dot — the bundle includes a rubberized childproof case, a two-year warranty and the aforementioned FreeTime services. Elsewhere in Bezosland, the company has added automobiles to its list of delivery drop-off points. The new option is an adjunct to its Amazon Key service for Prime members, which allows packages to be dropped off within customers’ homes to thwart front-door theft. The latest addition will give Amazon drivers keyless access to Chevy’s, Buicks, Cadillacs, Volvos and GMC vehicles with OnStar or Volvo On Call connected-car programs.

See the full story at TWICE.

Homeland Security

Prime Cut: Amazon has quietly launched a portal for home security services that incorporates its recent Blink and Ring acquisitions. Unlike most current home-security plans, which are subscription based to provide retailers with a recurring revenue stream, Amazon, being the disruptor that it is, is pitching them as flat-fee packages.

TWICE Take: Amazon offers five packages that range from $240 to $840. All include hardware and two in-home visits from Amazon consultants to assist with the installations. The top-tier bundle features an alarm siren, motion and safety sensors, indoor and outdoor lighting, an Echo Dot, a camera and a video doorbell. The latter two leverage Amazon’s Cloud Cam and Amazon Key services (see item above), while the security offerings themselves fall under a fledgling Smart Home Services program that’s so far available in 11 states and Washington, D.C.

See the full story at TechCrunch.

Amazon Quote Of The Week

“We’re on a multi-year journey to fundamentally change human-computer interaction, and as we like to say at Amazon, it’s still Day 1.” — Alexa Brain group chief Ruhi Sarikaya on coming improvements to Alexa’s conversational skills