Published on October 29th, 2019 | by Emergent Enterprise0
Did Amazon Go Automate Cashier Jobs, or Relocate Them?
People have used self-checkout at grocery stores for some time now and it is second nature these days. But the process had a clunky start and some stores abandoned it all together. As David Pring-Mill reports at techq.com, the automated Amazon Go store experience is having growing pains as well as the tech giant learns customer behavior and the performance of the technology in real life. This is a reminder that an innovative idea like the Amazon Go store has to be launched – warts and all – so the user experience can be refined by the real world interactions from the most important stakeholders – the customers.
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When Amazon debuted its automated convenience store in Seattle in early 2018, I was impressed with the consumer experience but also aware of the long-term ripple effects. At a time when the self-checkout machine market was expected to grow, due in part to labor shortages and lowered kiosk prices, Amazon leapfrogged over that technology and many others, such as mobile payments.
They went from self-checkout to no-checkout. The company had, in effect, done the exact same thing that allowed it to dominate the e-commerce side of things: They made shopping easier. To use industry lingo, they reduced the friction of transactions. But how?
Amazon Go’s Humans-in-the-Loop
It’s now 2019 Q4 and the AI technologies deployed in its Amazon Go stores haven’t yet been fully perfected. I recently learned that the company still relies on “humans-in-the-loop” who confirm purchases whenever the AI system is uncertain. This work takes place in multiple locations and Amazon did not deny the possibility that some of this work is done overseas, far away from the actual brick-and-mortar stores.
The company maintains that these interventions are infrequent. However, there’s no publicly disclosed or external data to verify that. Therefore, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that some cashiers haven’t been automated; they’ve been outsourced and their work has been technologically augmented. That may be a transitional state but it fundamentally changes the nature of the conversation.
The political conversation
Currently, some US Presidential candidates are anticipating change and offering up plans to mitigate the effects of technological unemployment. It’s more difficult to do that when there is limited transparency around the state of progress and the operational efficiencies of solutions on the market. There are even differing postures on the recent past. In the recent CNN/New York Times debate, Andrew Yang and Sen. Elizabeth Warren disagreed over the impact that automation has already produced.
Many AI systems are still learning. Amazon Alexa relies on a surprising number of human workers. A Bloomberg investigation revealed that thousands of contractors and employees around the world, bound by NDAs, are listening to audio clips in order to further improve the tech. In 2018, Google unveiled its Duplex system, a form of AI that can sound natural while booking appointments over the phone. The company declared that its system would be able to operate fully autonomously for the majority of tasks, but acknowledged the need for real-time supervised training and human intervention on unusually complex tasks.
The New York Times dabbled around with the service earlier this year and found what it characterized as “a heavy reliance on humans” who sometimes initiated and handled the calls entirely. I told Forbes that this human involvement shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a marketing deception or technological inadequacy. Rather, it’s a natural part of AI progression and is consistent with the philosophy that early stage AI has the potential to serve as an augmentation of the workforce.
But retail is somewhat different. We’re already used to the idea of overseas call centers, which were largely enabled by telecommunication expansions and cost-saving strategies in the 1990s. Google Duplex feels like more of the same. Partly automating and outsourcing the work of a neighborhood cashier is new.
Various automation technologies could disrupt the retail labor force, disproportionately impacting women, who account for 73 percent of cashier jobs. But there are also other sociopolitical implications.
Why cash still matters in automated retail
I’ve shopped at Amazon Go on multiple occasions, in both Seattle and San Francisco. Healthy eating options abound. I can scan a QR code, walk in, grab whatever I want, and then leave. Regardless of what is happening behind-the-scenes, the process allows customers to glide through transactions…