Are we ready for fully automated retail?

People walk by the Amazon Go brick-and-mortar grocery store without lines or checkout counters, in Seattle Washington, U.S. December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Redmond - RTSUU23

People walk by the Amazon Go brick-and-mortar grocery store without lines or checkout counters, in Seattle Washington, U.S. December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Redmond – RTSUU23

Amazon recently announced Go, the technology that will make checkout lines and cash registers a thing of the past. Go will purportedly enable customers to walk into the store, pick up the items they need and just walk out, something that presently amounts to shoplifting.

The company uses computer vision, deep learning algorithms and sensor fusion to perform complicated tasks that were previously in the exclusive domain of human brain and senses.

While the technology is still in test mode and will be launched at an employee-only outlet, it sheds light on a future where humans will be less and less present in brick-and-mortar retail.

There will be some glitches and kinks that need to be ironed out, but I think there aren’t any major obstacles that can’t be overcome in the future.

However, while we cherish and embrace cutting edge technologies that are making our lives easier and more efficient, we should also examine the hidden impacts and changes that will trail behind.

Jobs

When they become mainstream, technologies such as Amazon Go and McDonald’s Kiosk will have a definite impact on the economic landscape. These are innovations that will help reduce labor costs dramatically. Robots and algorithms cost less than humans, are more efficient at their specific tasks, and can work for longer periods.

This especially important for companies like Amazon, which are operating on thin profit margins. It will enable the firms to improve bottom line and to possibly lower prices.

But what will happen to all the people who will lose their jobs. The Amazon Go video shows a single employee placing items in their correct shelves, a feat that is still considered difficult—but not impossible—for robots to complete. But cashiers can say goodbye to their jobs.

The general counterargument to the job loss caused by technology is that new jobs will be created to compensate for those lost. This is true, however, the jobs that are created are dramatically different from those that are being destroyed.

The rise of artificial intelligence and big data adoption is creating many new IT, data science and programming roles. But it’s hard for me to imagine a McDeez employee springing into an analytics position anytime soon.

A lot of minimum wage jobs are likely to be killed with these innovations. The irony is that the $15 minimum wage dream might become true for the few who do get to keep their jobs, as companies will have to hire less. As for the rest, they’ll have to settle down for welfare.

Amazon Go isn’t the first technology to remove humans from retail shops—self-checkouts have been pushing the drive for a few years now. Neither is retail the only field where human presence is gradually dwindling.

The “robots stealing jobs” controversy is an endemic political, economic and philosophical debate, and it might’ve been part of the reason Clinton lost the 2016 elections.Tech corps will have to find a way to reintegrate the workforce into the new economic landscape, or find ways to compensate them for the damage it is causing them. That’s why Universal Basic Income, the idea of giving out unconditional cash payments to citizens, has gained much traction in the past years.

Privacy and security issues

For such systems to function properly, a lot of data has to be collected from customers. The mere mention of deep learning implies it. And as we all know, artificial intelligence has a privacy problem.

Most web-based services offer opt-out or wipe-out features for users who are concerned over the data that is being collected by the system. The tradeoff is that the system won’t be optimized for the user’s preferences and habits.

In systems such as Amazon Go, turning off data collection will stop the system from functioning. And you’ll be left with no other option than to let them take what they want and start targeting you with targeted upsell offers and tantalizing commercials.

Security will also be a major concern in an increasingly automated and connected retail store. As Bruce Schneier rightly points out, complex systems are hard to secure. And retailers will have a hard time keeping hackers out and away from poking at their systems and finding ways to get themselves some free food off the shelves.

Shoplifting of old might no longer be an issue, but we’ll surely see some new forms of theft and fraud arise in automated retail. John Dvorak points out to some of the devious ways technology like Amazon Go can be taken advantage of.

Social interaction

Taking away humans from stores will move us one step closer to a world where social interactions become scarce or non-present. As I’ve described in this piece, part of the fun of life is meeting and interacting with other human beings, and learning from those interactions—even the unpleasant ones.

Today, chatbots, smart vending machines, drone deliveries, virtual reality, etc. are making us less and less reliant on humans to carry out daily tasks.

As we start to replace humans with robots in each and every domain, we will slowly become cyborgs and robots ourselves. That might be what the Singularity theory has for us in stock, a Matrix-like world where humans are trapped in cubicles and the world is run by AI and robots, or a Wall-e version where robots are humble servant of humans and pamper them in a utopian paradise.

I don’t think I’m in the position or time to judge whether that will be a good thing or a bad one. But I know that we are becoming more and more asocial as AI and automation encroaches over every aspect of our lives. And at the moment, thinking about walking in and out of a store without saying hello to a single human being makes me feel lonely.

Some thoughts to leave you with

I’m sure Amazon Go and automated retail will be a huge thing once it picks up in earnest. But it and other similar technologies will also change us profoundly as persons and societies. We should think deeply on those and make sure we can remove the negative aspects while taking full advantage of the positive ones.

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