As I write this, I am using text-to-speech technology, a nifty online feature that enables the reader to listen to, rather than read an article. I’m listening to an article on ‘the chicken sandwich war,’ as narrated by a bot.
Text-to-speech technology is an assistive technology and an improvement on accessibility. It is also one example of how artificial intelligence (AI), bots, and machine learning, have been stitched into our everyday lives. This intersection has been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. The last several months, we have used AI for therapy, for socialization, and to meet our increased demands of e-commerce and online retail. Increasing reliance on internet capabilities, automation and machine assistance has become normalized and stitched into our everyday lives.
As for the goods and our consumption of consumer packaged goods, robots and AI help us make the purchases we need and want, and in some cases, automated computer programs can get us the in-demand, trending, and “rare” goods we desire, at a faster rate than any human could manage. AI has assisted in making our purchasing experience better, supporting smoother transactions and online interactions. This influx of technological innovation and change has on one hand, contributed to more equitable access to goods and services. Now with the help of improved personalization strategies like product recommendations, consumers are given more options based on their personal data, and with the pandemic, more entrepreneurs and startups have been able to sell digitally. This surge of buyers and vendors leads to more data, which in turn, allows businesses to build and grow more rapidly. AI capabilities interlaced into the online shopping experience reward customers with precise results, products suited to their exact demands, and satisfying, seamless shopping experiences. Feeling understood and valued obtaining personalized and quick service is a positive component to transactions. Thus, the ability of AI to offer personalized experiences is key to the growth and success of retail companies. However, does such personalized interface only offer positive outcomes to the consumer? Job loss, biased algorithms and online bots because of the use of AI in consumer retail has created increased inequalities too. Indeed, during this pandemic, inequalities resulting from digital and online dependence have been unmistakably exposed.
This “online ecosystem” of e-commerce and retail saw an unprecedented growth of 30 percent in online sales as a result of consumers staying at home. Before the pandemic, e-commerce giants such as Amazon were growing, while traditional retailers were continually managing their in-store presences. Since the initial rise of e-commerce and beginning decline of shopping centers during the 2017 ‘retail apocalypse’, more stores were opening than closing until the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, retail sales made through e-commerce has gone up by 44 percent, while brick and mortar stores continue to disappear at a faster rate. Moreover, the pandemic has enabled the shakeout of the weakest players, as corporations continue to grow at the expense of small businesses.
For consumers, online shopping makes purchasing experiences easier in many ways. Yet more machine learning and AI has introduced a newer kind of problem: cybercriminals and bots that actually make buying certain goods impossible for everyday consumers. Indeed, the pandemic has been the perfect breeding ground for scalpers and their retail bots. Buying goods at inhumane speed, grinch bots amidst a growing resale and scalping market online makes the purchasing process more frustrating and contributes to changing how we perceive goods, companies, and the internet. The attempted purchase of the new PS5 is one such example of a difficult procurement. This scarcity and ‘rareness’ that comes with selling out or acquiring highly sought out products shifts our perception of stuff and can prioritize material goods in our eyes. Moreover, it creates a space for an overpriced market of these same goods and ultimately breeds a culture of competitive and individualistic consumption, while online purchasing attracts new cybercriminals specializing in an entirely new market focused on resales.
Yet scalpers and their retail bots are not only a headache for those seeking to purchase hedonic and luxury goods, but also a danger to those requiring essentials. The start of the pandemic saw the dangers of stockpiling and hoarding, and individuals who managed to acquire large quantities of essentials like respirator masks and hand sanitizers unfairly hoarded and jacked up their pricing. In such instances, bots and AI were able to work in support of everyday consumers. Amazon, eBay and Walmart, along with other online-commerce platforms, cracked down on sellers making excessive profits from the public health crisis. While price gouging of essential items during the pandemic has been dangerous and morally questionable, this strategy has been around since long before the pandemic began. Scoping out bargains, shopping the clearance section and timing their purchases for discount days, everyday consumers have become skilled at ‘retail arbitrage’, price-checking products in-store, comparing them to their online prices and ultimately reselling these items for higher prices on Amazon and other e-commerce sites. As such, the focus on e-commerce and online shopping during the pandemic has accelerated the use of bots to mitigate these scalpers, potentially contributing to the positive benefits of AI and bots. For companies, they can even determine the economic cost of processing returns and whether it is worth it for them to accept returns from their consumers of unwanted goods. In some instances, corporations like Walmart, Amazon, and Target told customers who wanted to return items and unwanted gifts to keep them, as it was more cost efficient for companies to not take the goods back and still refund consumers’ money. Nonetheless, the environmental effects of such ‘non-returns’ and unwanted stuff is yet to be seen.
The increased and persistent demand for e-commerce and online shopping has not supported the whole job market either. Digital functionalities such as apps and general e-commerce serve as the connecting bridge between businesses and consumers today, as reflected by food delivery demands. While online shopping keeps businesses open, in-store workers’ roles transform from one of retail floor assistant, to factory pickers, packers and delivery drivers. During this pandemic, Amazon has already had a surge in new employee hires, most of them being warehouse workers. From January to October, Amazon added 427,300 employees, pushing its workforce to more than 1.2 million people globally. This is up more than 50% from a year ago. Amazon even hired software engineers and hardware specialists. With a presence and employees in every state across the country, the influence of tech giant Amazon is unprecedented – and dangerous. Tapping into mass unemployment resulting from the pandemic, Amazon has hired and incentivized new workers with extra pay, working in conjunction with local governmental authorities shutting small businesses during lockdown. Newly hired tech workers have even built portals and algorithms to ease hiring processes, and such automated hiring allows prospective employees to get a job without talking to anyone at any point in their applications.
The future of retail and consumption is dependent on AI and the incorporation of machine learning in company activities. AI will continue to grow and shape consumption, as consumer goods companies and tech giants increasingly use it to enter new industries like healthcare. But automation and AI can and should be used to mitigate and combat the negative repercussions of automation and predictive analytics. Generating ‘hype’ around a product and fighting bots for that limited edition sweater are probably problems that will stick around, but new variables influencing how we consume and treat material goods are sure to occur. Automation and AI redefine our relationships and interactions with businesses and corporations, and with one another. Rather than a focus on growing clicks, views and page visits, AI and assistive technology should be engineered to support us and help us grow and connect with ourselves and one another. Using our data to render better online search results and e-commerce is ultimately using biased information, as the information we feed into these bots reflect the pre-existing biases in our societies. As technology will continue to advance, consumers and companies must remember to prioritize humans and their well-being amidst the statistics, data, machine learning and AI. As tech giants continue to grow, consumers will be sure to witness and experience a range of new challenges surrounding information, privacy and accessibility implicated in our everyday lives.
This article is part of a series on consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we surpassed the 1-year mark of lockdown living, the series looks at how the ways that we connect, communicate, and live have changed. From increased surveillance and usage of personal data for the purpose of surveillance, to restructuring our homes to better meet our changing demands, the pandemic has jumpstarted new trends while accelerating some already existing. It has challenged the ways that we cope and ignited conversation on the need for better support systems such as for mental health and well-being. For further reading, follow the series on Social Science Space with the tag “COVID and Consumption”.