Perhaps in the near future, historians will trace a major economic upheaval back to this point in time. In downtown Seattle, on January 22, a catalyst for change was unveiled to the public. A technologically-sophisticated grocery store, dubbed Amazon Go, allows shoppers to put items into their bags and then leave without any kind of checkout process. I went to Seattle to visit the store in its second week.
Amazon Go represents a revolution in retail. As in all revolutions, power dynamics will shift, people will get hurt, and previously impossible things will become possible. There is excitement in the air–and also fear. In this instance, the collateral damage could include some of the 3.5 million cashiers employed throughout the United States. A Cornerstone Capital Group report indicates that “large-scale automation of retail labor could disproportionately affect women.”
The revolution will not be televised. However, it will be filmed — by about 100 cameras mounted to metal beams, and intricately wired on a dark ceiling. Amazon Go is capable of monitoring and automatically billing all of its customers by using computer vision, sensors, and deep learning. This isn’t self-checkout, it’s no-checkout. And it will add to the toll of automation-induced casualties.
The entire process of shopping becomes quick and effortless — but lines, chit-chat, and cashiers are no longer a part of it. Of course, some critics might argue that the cashiers aren’t collateral damage at all; they’re the intended target of this revolution. Amazon has willfully designed an AI-powered system of sensors that will allow retailers to lay off redundant staff, and increase profitability.
Next: It’s more complicated than that.