Amazon Go: A.I.’s grim face?

I have been waiting since college on RFID’s failed promise to deliver a walk-away checkout experience, and Amazon finally made it possible. After reading my co-blog writer’s experience in the Amazon Go store I had to check it out for myself and was excited for it. All my friend’s pictures were of long lines, but thankfully I am a morning person and there was no line when I got there. My goal was to pretend I had no idea what it was or how it worked. My experience overall was good, with the exception of the on-boarding process. I was greeted with a condescending “oh, you don’t have the app?” and was asked to stay aside. My T-Mobile reception was very poor so it took me a bit to get started. Once I downloaded the app and signed into my Amazon account everything was smooth. Mission accomplished! In this post, I’m not going to talk about the actual store (Ivan did a great job already) but about the implications of the first tangible and successful AI automated store.

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Exterior of the Amazon Go store

Automation has always been part of our history. Automation has helped us evolve into the society we have now. Such as, automating how we grow and crop food so we can have a good food supply, the industrial revolution to make things faster and cheaper, the assembly line to make them even faster and cheaper, and finally computers to automate processes and tasks. Now, AI is here and it will automate all of our productivity.

A couple of years back I was in the audience of a conference where the keynote speaker gave us a very grim picture about automation: “you will all lose your jobs to AI”. We all laughed but at the same time you could feel the low energy. We could see it would replace many other jobs… but us? I mean, we were all programers and tech industry people, AI was not going to replace us!

Since that conference I have been keeping an eye on that issue. How is AI going to change us? How will we, as society, adapt? If we are currently a divided society, will AI make it worse?

Amazon’s Go store can start giving us some of these answers. If you go to the store, you will see a bunch of workers outside and some more through the windows preparing food. Let’s be honest, the people outside are just cheerleaders until the crowds die. I mean, what was the point of doing all this automation if you continue to have all that staff. Now, the people in the kitchen might make sense for this store as it has a high volume of daily visits but to scale they won’t be there. Food preparation will be centralized so that sandwiches can be sent to all stores within a region. In the end, you will only need one employee: a security guard. Things will be placed on shelfs by robots (they already do it in their warehouse, why not the store) and a percent of a person will be making the food. This is a dream come true from a business point of view, you can sell faster and at a lower cost! That means more $$$.

However, what happens if you apply this model on a big scale? What happens when truck drivers get automated by Uber’s trailers, and taxi/Uber drivers get replaced by automated cars, and robots in factories get upgraded to do people tasks, and Accountants/Lawyers and other business functional roles get replaced by smart software? As we automate all these great things, who will be left in the economic system to buy the awesome next tech marvel? If no one can buy, who will pay our bills? Maybe we won’t get automated but laid off.

Another aspect of this automation is society’s division. We have already seen the divide in society in part thanks to the disparity of incomes. However, automation of this kind will create even further separation of classes. What if you don’t have a smart phone to pay? What if you have low tech payment methods like bills or food stamps? Are we, in our drive to do cool/awesome new things, dividing society even further?

Many people are asking to make sure there is a guaranteed minimum income and taxes on AI automation. For a minute, let’s imagine that we do automate all jobs and both GMI and taxes are implemented. What will all the people do? Survive? Everybody deserves a chance of a fair and fulfilling life. Every human being deserves the chance of having purpose. How will that evolve when you remove the gratification of earning your own money? What will we dream about and what will make us look forward to tomorrow?

I realize this post has more questions than answers. At the moment, that’s all I have to offer. Questions can be as good as answers if they spark curiosity. AI is a reality that is both exciting and terrifying. So as we build the next awesome product, let’s think about the implications it will have on others and help find solutions to mitigate those consequences. Ignoring them will only create a bigger problem.

Till later,

-Alvaro


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