As Amazon considers licensing its Go supermarket technology to other retailers, the impact on jobs and the wider economy could be significant, as low-skill workers in the tens of thousands struggle to find alternative employment.
Tomorrow’s Supermarket Today
The online retail giant Amazon has been developing a supermarket that has no cashiers and few other staff members. Using cameras, sensors, scanners and AI, Amazon Go allows registered users to enter the supermarket, pick up whatever they need and walk straight out. The bill appears on the customer’s app a few seconds later.
Amazon Go now has 17 unstaffed supermarkets in the US (see case study below), where customers literally walk out without queuing or scanning their items of shopping. Bloomberg is reporting that the company is considering licensing the technology to other companies as well as opening further stores.
“Now, having improved the technology, the company is getting closer to its original ambition. Amazon aims to support stores as large as 30,000 square feet, the size of a typical modern supermarket.” (Bloomberg)
In the U.K. customers are already well acquainted with self-checkout, and the increasing number of stores having no human employee operated tills. How long can it be before even these self-checkouts machines become redundant?
Apple Pay, Google Pay and a host of other mobile phone payment apps are now in general usage. The next step towards a mobile phone paying automatically for goods as a customer leaves a store without any interaction, beyond picking up desired items, is almost certainly within the near future.
The Tesco Threat
Tesco, along with rivals have also been developing various ways of making shopping in their stores a seamless process, and were looking at embedding Rfid tags as far back as the late 1990s.
The potential impact on jobs is likely to be immense, Tesco alone employs 450,000, many with low-skills. Supermarket type jobs are vital for those requiring flexible working, like single parents, and multiple job (gig) workers. If Amazon are as advanced as it appears, and Tesco entered an agreement to licence the technology, the consequence could be significant for employees working in stores of up to 30,000 sq ft; as the shop portfolio below shows:
New World of Work
How much are the authorities and government preparing for the potential tsunami of job losses that may incur because of this technology and changing consumer behaviour? What new skills do people need to learn to still be economically active in the coming Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)?
The Haphazard 4IR Innovation Hub* intends to discover how people plan to adapt and what new opportunities will be awaiting them in this next iteration of industrial change.
A review of Amazon Go, a fully AI automated supermarket without cashiers where you can just walk straight out with your food without queuing. | By Yvonne Rogers, Professor of Interaction Design, the director of UCLIC and a deputy head of the Computer Science department at UCL.
I had the pleasure of visiting Amazon’s HQ in Seattle last week to give a talk on my research. I also got to experience Amazon Go – the new grocery store they have created which has transformed how you purchase goods. You simply sign up, walk in, pick up and walk out. The paying happens automatically in the background. It is perfect for those who are in a rush and need to grab some lunch or a snack. No need to wait again for someone taking for ever deciding what to buy at the deli or fumbling with their purse to pay. ‘Just walk out shopping’ is their slogan.
It is a big step up from the last supermarket innovation of the barking self-checkout machines. Instead of scanning each item, you download the Amazon Go app and then place the QR code that appears on your mobile phone at a turnstile reader that lets you into the store. You are then registered as a customer, enabling you to take anything off the shelves, place it in your pocket or bag and then simply walk out when you have got what you want. Then, seconds after exiting, you get a receipt that itemizes what you took and deducts the amount owing from your Amazon account. It is all done through AI tech.
I thought Amazon’s 1-click ordering for online shopping was very clever at reducing the burden of shopping. But this new-fangled idea of shopping without having to go to a checkout is even more innovative. Except you feel a tad guilty – at least the first time – walking out of the store without the physical action of paying – almost like shoplifting in broad daylight.
So how does the tech do it? Has it stopped shoplifting? Can you trick the system? The smarts are in how the computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning are combined to track you and what you take from a shelf. Look up to the ceiling and you see an array of depth sensor cameras protruding that track you and your arm movements as you move around and lift your arm towards a shelf. The imaging is coupled with what is detected as being removed using weight sensors that are placed on the shelves underneath each item. All pretty clever and reliable. The only time it may get confused is if two people in close proximity put their arm out at the same time, one on top of the other and reach out to a shelf at the same time. It could mistake the arms so that each gets billed for the wrong item. But it is smart enough to know if someone picks something up and put it back down again – even in the wrong place. Unlike the first generation of smart hotel mini-bars that billed you for just opening the fridge and lifting something out to take a look.
There are 17 of these stores now in the US and more being built each month. What next one wonders – if this kind of automated convenience store takes off. Besides revolutionizing how we purchase goods it could be used in other places, such as bars and pubs, removing the need to have to wait in line to buy a drink. You could even pull your own pint – but someone will still have to pick up the dirty glasses afterwards.
Case Study and header photographs Yvonne Rogers
*The first Haphazard 4IR Innovation Hub will open in Great Yarmouth in winter 2020.
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Rogers, Yvonne. Amazon Go, Interactive Ingredients, 23 July 2019. Blog.