AI in Context Implementing New Technologies in Retail

Data & Society, a New York City–based research institute focused on social and cultural issues arising from big data and automated technologies, recently released a new report on the future effect artificial intelligence (AI) poses to the retail industry. “AI in Context: The Labor of Integrating New Technologies” analyzes how AI — despite fears about its potential to replace human labor — is setting the stage for workplaces that will continue to rely on human beings to carry out different tasks.

Amazon’s cashier-less retail store, Amazon Go, sparked several fears about a retail future bereft of human labor. Relying on a skeleton crew of human staffers to restock shelves or bake food, Amazon’s automated store seemingly figured out how to seamlessly create a physical retail experience that doesn’t depend on cashiers or other frontline workers.

But Amazon wasn’t the first company to begin the process of automating retail labor — it was the now-ubiquitous self-checkout machine used by grocers and convenience stores around the globe. After the self-checkout expanded in use throughout the 1990s, many speculated that it would render cashiers and related retail laborers obsolete (similar to the speculations about Amazon Go).

Ultimately, those fears proved to be misguided. The adoption and usage of self-checkouts has fluctuated over the past few decades, as users grew frustrated with unintuitive interfaces and cumbersome checkout procedures.

In turn, the skills and responsibilities of a cashier have adapted. Rather than simply ringing up a purchase, cashiers must now fill customer service roles by troubleshooting self-checkout issues caused by the very machines meant to make the checkout process more efficient. While self-checkout machines make it easier for shoppers to check out on their own, users who run into difficulty ultimately need a human cashier to resolve the issue.

Another promise of self-checkout systems was to reallocate cashier labor to other tasks throughout a store. Instead, those workers were often left to oversee the self-checkout operation or entice users to use self-checkout machines rather than the checkout lanes operated by human beings. Rather than replacing human jobs, self-checkout machines ultimately reconfigured the types of work that retail workers were responsible for carrying out.

Automated technologies like self-checkouts may be highly efficient pieces of machinery, but human beings are still required to interact with the machines on a daily basis. Organizations developing the AI solutions of tomorrow may seem like they’re building applications meant to replace human labor. However, instead, that labor is being adapted into new skills and responsibilities that complement the work carried out by a machine. 

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