Why AI won’t take over the world just yet

By | April 22, 2024

There’s been a lot of doom and gloom talk about artificial intelligence (AI) in the tech world lately, with some dire predictions about how it’ll cost people their jobs and the world will become a terrible dystopian nightmare… which seems just a little dramatic to me.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some upsides to the advances we’ve seen in AI technology (like the ability to spot early signs of certain health conditions that I’ve mentioned in the past).  And of course, there are downsides too, like how a lot of AI image generators were created using stolen artwork.

But the side of AI that had me a bit worried initially was the concept of a “Just Walk Out” supermarket that Amazon have trialled recently in London.  The basic idea was a supermarket with no staff at all, where you simply walk in, take the items you need off the shelf, and walk out again.

It’s not quite as bonkers as it sounds – there are sensors on the shelf that register when you take an item, and a combination of facial recognition and other AI technology is used to add up the total cost and charge it to your Amazon account, with an email receipt.  You don’t have to bother with queueing up at the checkout, or unpacking your trolley onto the conveyor belt and then packing it again once the cashier has scanned it all.

So from an efficiency and convenience point of view, I can see what they’re going for – until, of course, something goes wrong.  What happens if the shelf sensor scans an item twice, or you change your mind after you’ve picked something up, or you can’t find the eggs and need to ask a staff member where they’ve moved them to this time?

A lot of the measures that big supermarkets have introduced to try and increase the efficiency and convenience of doing your weekly food shop end up not being quite as fantastic as they’d first thought.  For example, the “Scan As You Shop” process is fine until they need to check your receipt against a massively full trolley before you can leave – at which point, you might as well have just done it the traditional way.

My nearest supermarket has actually removed the self-checkout machines completely, which many locals are really glad about.  I don’t mind a self-checkout if I’ve only got a couple of bits and I’m in a rush, but that’s because I’m comfortable using it after my Saturday job in Tesco as a teenager.

But a lot of people aren’t confident with scanning their own shopping, or they just don’t want to, so supermarkets need to give their customers both options to choose from.  Many of us quite enjoy having a natter with the person behind the till (I know I do), and I would imagine that anyone working in a supermarket would quite like to be able to keep paying their bills!

So while I can see these “Just Walk Out” stores working for some shoppers, I doubt that they’ll be the next big thing any time soon.

And for a final bit of irony, it turns out that although these shops claim to be run entirely by fancy tech, the reality is that all of the camera footage and AI software is being remotely watched and monitored by human beings – which kind of defeats the point of it, really.  I can’t say I’m particularly surprised.

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