Innovation

Amazon Go launches: The automated retail revolution begins

The fully-automated store concept promises no lines or checkouts, and could be the first stage in AI changing the labor force.

Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • The Amazon Go automated retail store with no cashiers or registers is now officially open in Seattle.
  • The concept could prove the first step for widespread automation in the retail industry, impacting millions of jobs.

Amazon Go, the automated grocery store with no cashiers or checkout lines, opened to the public on Monday in Seattle. The store, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to streamline the shopping process, could have a major impact on future of retail jobs.

Controversy has loomed over AI and its related technologies for their potential to displace workers in certain jobs that require repetitive tasks. Now, after more than a year in beta testing, Amazon Go could give us a picture of what that automated retail revolution will actually look like.

To shop at the store, visitors simply walk into the 1,800-square foot space, scan their Amazon Go app, pick up the items they want, and leave. No need to place items on the familiar conveyor belt, or self-scan and pay. Amazon will charge your account and send a receipt when you leave the store.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the future of artificial intelligence (Tech Pro Research)

The technology behind this experience is called Just Walk Out, according to the Amazon Go website. Just Walk Out is built with computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning tools that detect what items have been picked up by what customers, and makes the appropriate charges.

The store sells grocery essentials along with ready-to-eat meals and meal kits that can be made at home, the website noted. And, while there are no formal plans just yet, Amazon's recent acquisition of Whole Foods offers the firm plenty of expansion options if they wish to broaden the reach of Amazon Go.

While Amazon Go does have employees who prepare the meal kits, stock shelves, and help customers, there are no cashiers in the building, the website said. Although Amazon Go is just a concept, the idea behind it could radically disrupt the lives of retail workers everywhere.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were nearly 5 million retail sales jobs in 2016, and roughly 3.5 million cashiers employed. Of those 3.5 million, about 870,000 worked in grocery stores. For these workers, Amazon isn't the only company taking steps that could eliminate their jobs.

In Wisconsin, the Woodman's Market grocery store boasts its own mobile shopping experience that allows customers to scan items as they shop and pay on the way out without interacting with a cashier. Grocery giant Walmart is also testing fully-automated stores.

McDonald's also recently detailed plans to replace cashiers with digital ordering kiosks in 2,500 of its restaurants, which led to its shares hitting an all-time high.

There's no denying that the future of retail is digital and highly automated, but that doesn't answer the question of what will happen to the workers impacted by the technological shift. Many have posited that the AI revolution will create new kinds of jobs for displaced workers, while others have argued that AI will destroy more jobs than it creates. Even if AI can create new kinds of work, is it work that can be fulfilled by the workers it eliminated?

When automation comes into play, there will be a need for technical experts to repair and maintain the hardware. There will also be a need for store managers to help operate the fleet of devices that replace their human employees. The question is whether or not it's pragmatic to assume that every displaced cashier can be trained to troubleshoot AI-powered machines, and, if so, who will provide them with that training or education? Companies like Amazon, Walmart, and McDonalds can take on this task, but it will need to be proven as a clear benefit to the company's bottom line before they'll do so.

Also see

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Image: Amazon

About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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