You want it? Just take it! No strings attached(?!)*

*Efficient, yes, but don’t forget the small print… there’s no privacy, no humanness and, most importantly, no choice in the matter.

Amazon Go, unveiled in Seattle, WA on December 5, 2016 is a new concept that promises consumers the ultimate grocery shopping experience: Walk into your local Amazon Go, grab what you need off the shelves (the technology magically knows what is added to the cart), confirm the purchase, and leave, without ever standing in a checkout line.

Supported by the tagline: Amazon Go: No line, no checkout (no, seriously), the efficiency of shopping (something Amazon has been striving for since day one) has been likened to that of a “cavernous vending machine”.

Thanks to the miracle of wifi, today’s connectivity is an inconspicuous force of invisible strings that tie us to the digital cloud. Enslaved by technology, we pay the hefty price of (what was once considered) precious privacy for a false sense of untethered freedom. We populate the cloud with the digital thumbprints left behind from our daily transactions as we swipe a Metro Card, scan our student ID or, with the touch of a sensor, consent to a purchase with our Apple Pay app. Let’s keep that word “consent” in mind, I’ll come back to it.

Adrian Mackenzie points out that “Wireless-ness affects how people arrive, depart, and inhabit places, how they relate to others, and indeed, how they embody change.”[i] Building on the ubiquity of smart phones and current habitual trends of use, the (highly automated) on-line retailer Amazon is beta-testing its latest attempt to find its place in the world of brick and mortar, which is to say, its interactive infrastructure now requires customers in the flesh. Can this become the new golden standard and where else can it work effectively?

Amazon’s recent Global Partners Program has brought more retailers onto its payments platform, allowing customers to make purchases across multiple retailers using an Amazon login. Beyond a cashier-less retail experience, what would widespread adoption of this technology mean for customers? For starters, a monopoly on the retail industry by creating an umbrella under which all retailers, virtual and real, can participate. In the long-term, it would own the “new” standard of purchasing and change consumer behavior, dehumanizing and potentially devastating retail.

So how does Amazon Go work?

See video: “How Amazon Go will work” from USA today: http://usat.ly/2hkPdxD

  • Technologies from self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning
  • Scan QR code from app upon entrance to store
  • “Just walk out technology” detects movement of items off the shelves and tracks them in a virtual cart charges Amazon account for your virtual cart. Uses sensors throughout the store and AI to tell which direction customers are looking, even in a crowd, and can identify partially blocked labels. Amazon Go links products to individuals (however this requires accuracy and no technical glitches).

Contradiction:
Brick and mortar stores should be intended to create human interactions. Amazon Go does the opposite.

 

Potential Problems:

  1. Technology glitches (see “human error data loss and outages” in: Amazon on-line retailer 2/28/17; GitLab on-line service provider 1/31/17; Microsoft Azure cloud storage 11/18-19/14) The Service Health Dashboard did display a message showing that S3 was having issues, but for a time all other services looked OK, despite the fact that they were not.” From Venturebeat: AWS apologizes…
  2. Will customers want to be tracked? (others that do: Retail Next, Euclid, Brickstream, WirelessWerx, Mexia Interactive, Shopper Trak and Nomi)
  3. Loss of low-skilled jobs
  4. Shoplifting or inaccuracies due to relocated products that get charged to customer erroneously
  5. Under-age alcohol purchases
  6. Family shopping: how to consolidate into one cart?

fig. 1. This RetailNext heat map shows the areas of the store that get the most foot traffic

OK, so there is some good to be found in this technological advance, right? Just think back to those endless hours spent queueing at the DMV for starters. With that in mind here are a few ideas on other environments that would benefit from the efficiencies proposed by Amazon Go’s “Just walk out technology”.

Potential Urban applications:

  1. DMV, Driver’s license renewals, vehicle registrations, etc.
  2. Libraries (check out, return process)
  3. School and work cafeterias
  4. Parking
  5. Public transport

From Shannon: Thoughts for further exploration

  1. More about how Amazon Go-like stores might impact the flows and characters of the city.
  2. Do we lose any particular social intelligences of change, any larger cultural patterns if we lose our grocers?
  3. What if “all” retail eventually becomes automated?
  4. In losing our shopkeepers, do we forfeit Jacobs’ “self-appointed public characters” — or did we lose these figures long ago, with the encroachment of big box retailers? What’s gained and forfeited if we automate other public services?

In Mizoram, India nghan lou dawr or, shops without shopkeepers have flourished for years. Here small-scale farmers entrust their business to anonymous buyers. For local customers, the reciprocity of such honesty and trust is what motivates them to purchase from the small farmers of the region.

 

 

Trust is the driving force of these successful relationships. Trust can be also be formed in city streets as a result of , what Jacob’s describes as “many, many little public sidewalk contacts”. “The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level…is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need.” What is particularly interesting of this notion of urban “trust” is that it implies no private commitments.*

Personal networks in the city provide an environment for feelings of goodwill without personal responsibility for our private affairs can be nurtured. The absence of human actors to play their roles within the network can only lead to a slow decay of urban “trust”

 

 

[i] Adrian Mackenzie, Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism in Network Cultures (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 64-65

*Jane Jacobs, “The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety” and “…Contact” in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1992 [1961]): 56

Other sources:

Melville, Andrew. “Amazon Go is about payments, not grocery,” Forbes.com.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/groupthink/2017/01/20/amazon-go-is-about-payments-not-grocery/#3ba6f18167e4 (accessed March 7, 2017)

“Amazon Go,” amazon.com. https://www.amazon.com/b?node=16008589011 (accessed March 7, 2017)

Kamen, Matt. “No more queues! Amazon Go’s high-street store let’s you walk in, grab items and walk out,” wired.co.uk. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/amazon-go-walk-out-shopping (accessed March 7, 2017)

Kamen, Matt. “Westfield Labs wants to merge physical and digital shopping,” wired.co.uk. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/antony-ritch-westfield-labs (accessed March 7, 2017)

Novet, Jordan. “AWS apologizes for February 28 outage, takes steps to prevent similar events,”

Venturebeat.com. http://venturebeat.com/2017/03/02/aws-apologizes-for-february-28-outage-takes-steps-to-prevent-similar-events/ (accessed March 7, 2017)

Includes link to full post-mortem

“Here’s what brick-and-mortar stores see when they track you,” Fastcompany.com. https://www.fastcompany.com/3015060/heres-what-brick-and-mortar-stores-see-when-they-track-you (accessed March 8, 2017)

Kessler, Sarah. “FTC recommends best practices for companies that use facial recognition technologies,” ftc.gov. https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2012/10/ftc-recommends-best-practices-companies-use-facial-recognition (accessed March 8, 2017)

Alba, Davey. “Only Amazon could make a checkout-free grocery store a reality,” wired.com. https://www.wired.com/2016/12/amazon-go-grocery-store/ (Accessed March 8, 2017)

Video: “How Amazon Go will work” from USA today: http://usat.ly/2hkPdxD

Weise, Elizabeth. “Amazon just opened a grocery store without a checkout line,” USAtoday.com. http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/12/05/amazon-go-supermarket-no-checkout-no-cashiers-artificial-intelligence-sensors/94991612/ (accessed March 8, 2017)

Future of Privacy Forum (fpf.org)

 

3 Comments

  1. Diana,
    I really enjoyed your piece on Amazon Go; I think it brought light to many of the ups and downs of a project like this. As mentioned in class I find it really interesting how this concept brings us to consider what relationships are important in an urban setting. Not that I want a lack of jobs, that being a potential repercussion of automating corporate based stores, but it is difficult not to find benefits in streamlining our overabundance of interactions (if we have less, would we value the ones we have more?). I also thought about one of the projects I came across when doing initial research from Near Future Labs, Corner Convenience (http://nearfuturelaboratory.com/projects/corner-convenience/), which presents the interesting idea of a hybrid shopping experience. Something else to think about…

  2. I also find AmazonGo contradictory in many ways, but it is also a fact that AmazonGo is triggering a big change in our daily life. If we accept that changes will happen anyway, we might have a different perspective to look at things.

    I liked how you brought up potential problems. I actually agree with Mariann about considering the importance of interactions in urban environment. Also, I think when we think the consequences in long term, lack of jobs might cause new kind of job opportunities. It might seem utopic for now, but maybe we wouldn’t need low-skilled jobs in near future. Or more likely the description of low-skilled jobs might change. Since AmazonGo is just a project for now, I guess we’ll find out some answers will be shaping during the process. I also think that some gaps that we see now, will be filled by users actions during the process.

  3. Amazon Go –
    Amazon’s practical purpose is reducing the friction inherent in personal goods transactions. Their success has capitalized on people’s desire for instant gratification (I want it now) and laziness (I want it to come to me). Their business model has been able to avoid state sales taxes (withholding support from locales) and support phenomenal growth despite razor thin profit margins.
    With Amazon Go I wonder if the enormous value of (expanding) the trust economy might outweigh the erosion of mind numbing jobs at the checkout line?
    Today, traditional farm stands still proliferate by the side of the road in the countryside, often with a self service cash jar (trustily) on hand along side the produce. Also today, suburban Walmarts offer low prices along with a low-wage workforce providing (consistently) dreadful and alienating customer experience.
    Would an Amazon-driven tomorrow possibly afford these workers better opportunity by delivering crafts of their labor to consumers’ doors, or as in the Go model, to the post-retail shelf?

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