Little People slam Amazon’s dwarf-tossing robot patent

Ethan Baron
The Mercury News

To this country’s people of unusually small stature, dwarf tossing is an insult and, according to Little People of America, “objectifies the entire dwarf community.”

That didn’t stop Amazon inventors from using a hypothetical dwarf figurine to illustrate the operations of a newly patented warehouse-robotics system that “tosses” inventory items into bins.

“The inventory system causes the dwarf to be brought within reach of the robotic arm,” the patent granted Tuesday says.

“Information from the sensor package and/or item database is used to determine a trajectory for tossing the dwarf by the robotic arm across a known distance to the first receiving location … the tossed dwarf is transferred down the corresponding chute to be loaded into another inventory holder.”

The practice of putting people with dwarfism into padded suits and helmets and having drunken bar patrons compete in how far they can throw them has drawn strong criticism from Little People of America, a nonprofit representing people with dwarfism.

Upon being informed about the Amazon patent, the Little People were not amused.

“Any time that ‘tossing’ and ‘dwarf,’ that those words are put together, is a real concern for us,” said Michelle Kraus, advocacy director for the organization.

“It really opens up the possibility of mocking and really dehumanizing little people, people of short stature.”

Amazon said in a statement that dwarf-tossing was used as an example to show a robotic arm moving products, and this “should not be taken out of context.”

“The patent talks about everyday inventory items, including a mug, dwarf figurine, and rubber ducky,” Amazon said.

A rubber ducky is indeed mentioned in the patent document — once. A mug is mentioned twice. A dwarf figurine is mentioned 17 times, and used in the patent sketches to show the robotic process.

Dwarfism can result from more than 300 different medical conditions, leading to an average height of four feet. The most common condition, achondroplasia, affects up to one in 15,000 people, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Amazon, which has populated many of its distribution warehouses with robots that move racks of consumer products from place to place, is working furiously to develop robots that can replace the human “pickers” and “stowers” who manually fill racks and bins.

Amazon noted that it’s been expanding its workforce at the same time it’s been automating warehouse operations.

“We are both creating jobs and adding automation,” Amazon said.

“Since the time we started introducing robotics at Amazon in 2012, we have added tens of thousands of robots to our fulfillment centers while also adding added over 300,000 full-time jobs globally. Our teams work alongside robots and we are excited to continue increasing the technology we use at our sites while growing our global workforce.”

Many patented technologies never see the light of day, so there’s no guarantee that Amazon will incorporate the robotic tossing system into its warehouse operations.