Amazon is considering licensing its Go supermarket technology to other retailers. The impact on jobs and the broader economy could be significant. Low-skill supermarket workers the algorithms replace may struggle to find alternative employment.
Tomorrow’s Supermarket Today
Online retail giant, Amazon has been developing a supermarket needing no cashiers. It relies on a handful of staff members. Using cameras, sensors, scanners, Amazon Go registers people when entering the supermarket. Customers pick up whatever they need and walk straight out. The bill appears on an app the customer needs to download in advance within a few seconds.
Amazon Go now has 17 unstaffed supermarkets in the US (see case study below). Customers enter, choose their shopping and leave without queuing or scanning their items. Bloomberg reports Amazon is considering licensing the technology to other companies. It also intends to open more 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)
Shoppers are already acquainted with self-checkout machines in the UK. An increasing number of stores have almost no human employee operating checkouts. How long can it be before even the self-checkout machines become redundant?
Apple Pay, Google Pay and a host of other mobile phone payment apps are now in general usage. It is a short next step towards fully automated mobile phone payments. Customers enter a store, choose desired items and exit without any interaction whatsoever.
The Tesco Threat
Tesco has also been developing ways of making shopping in-stores a seamless process. As far back as the 1990s, the company were considering embedding Rfid tag technology.
If Tesco automated completely, the impact on jobs will likely be immense. Tesco employs 450,000, many with low skills. Supermarket jobs are vital for those requiring flexible working. Single parents and gig workers are particularly vulnerable to losing out. If Tesco decides to licence Amazon’s technology, the consequence would be significant. Shop portfolio below shows the number of employees working in stores of up to 30,000 sq ft:.
New World of Work
How much are governments preparing for the potential tsunami of job losses that may incur? Technology and changing consumer behaviour will continue to evolve towards automated retail. What are new skills will those losing jobs need to remain economically active?
The Haphazard 4IR Innovation Hub* intends to discover how people plan to adapt. What new opportunities will be awaiting them in this next iteration of industrial change?
Below is a case study of what the supermarket of the near future will look like. It is crucial that policymakers begin to take the impact on jobs seriously.
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.