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Amazon Making Alarming Moves with Grocery Store Robots

Retail is changing, and Amazon is leading the charge. When the online retail giant announced in June 2017 that it was buying Whole Foods Market Inc. for $13.7 billion, more than a few eyebrows were raised about what we could expect going forward. After all, fresh food remains far removed from Amazon’s areas of expertise. Just as intriguing is the keen interest that Amazon takes in robotics and artificial intelligence tech.

Industry pundits are wondering if this acquisition could be the trigger that the fresh food industry and related industries need to propel them towards meeting up with their manufacturing and service-based counterparts as far as incorporating artificial intelligence is concerned.

The Human Factor:

According to Daron Acemoglu, an economist at Michigan Institute of Technology who studies the labor market and automation, retail operations like grocery stores have always been behind manufacturing in terms of automation and artificial intelligence, principally because of the complex nature of the work that humans do at various levels of the process. Sure, the more clerical and arithmetic based parts have been automated thanks to point-of-sale (POS) software like Simpay — and these have led to a greater customer experience in grocery stores — but other areas remain too complex to automate. Until today.

Six years ago, Amazon bought Kiva, a tech company that produces mobile robots, to add thrust to efforts aimed at automating Amazon’s distribution centers, a move that would save the company billions of dollars going forward. The full extent of Amazon’s efforts in this regard was on full display at the opening of Amazon Go, the first automated Amazon grocery store, which features very few human workers.

Automation and the Future of Retail:

With Amazon Go, Jeff Bezos has no doubt gone the farthest toward automating grocery stores, and this has policymakers and economists wondering about the implications for the future of work and possible income inequalities.

Whatever the future holds, if Amazon Go is anything to go on, then consumers can anticipate an exciting shopping experience. For example, the store speeds up the checkout process by eliminating it altogether. On arriving, customer’s phones are scanned by a computer, and then they are charged for whatever they put into their grocery bags and take home. Because so few people are around, the experience almost feels like shoplifting. A few humans hang around, however, like islands in the sea of automation. They carry out yet to be automated human tasks like answering queries, checking the ID of anybody trying to buy wine, rectifying glitches and possibly offering a smile and reassurance where it is needed.

More Opportunity — Not Less:

According to Acemoglu, there is no reason to believe that it is a given that advances in automation will lead to fewer opportunities for the almost 5 million people employed in the retail industry. Similar automation in the banking sector led to an increase in employment instead of a decrease. That assessment makes sense when you consider the political, human, and economic factors involved. Whatever the case may be, the customers are unlikely to complain about a future where grocery shopping is less stressful and more fun.

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