Tuesday, March 13, 2018 by David Williams
The idea that robots will replace entry-level workers in places likes supermarkets has been around for quite some time now. As a matter of fact, an online retail giant has already gone ahead and implemented the idea in its own experimental stores called Amazon Go, where customers can walk in, take whatever items they want, and walk out without needing to talk with anyone or hand over any money or credit information to anything, as the payment for whatever products they buy will be charged directly to their Amazon account.
It’s a simple idea, but the Chinese want to take it even further. Chinese search engine Baidu has started conducting its own experiments related to the subject of using Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) and robotics in retail stores. But instead of just displacing low-level workers like cashiers and stockmen, they want to implement new technology that could take away the jobs of supermarket managers as well.
According to a report from the South China Morning Post, Baidu’s plan revolves around the use of A.I. to tell, with great accuracy, the exact quantity of food products that are needed in order to meet customer demands without creating any excess waste that needs to be disposed by the end of the day. It does this by using historical data from a total of 70 different metrics, which include store food purchases, sales, festivals, and even the weather. The Beijing-based company is currently testing an algorithm that takes all of this and comes up with actionable data that could somehow make store managers entirely obsolete.
Of course, the intention of Baidu is not to cause supermarket managers grief. Rather, the idea is to cut back on expenses even further, not just by removing the managers but also by reducing the amount of wasted products that need to be thrown out because they weren’t purchased by customers by their proverbial data of expiry. This is especially true of fresh food products, which need to be cleared out quickly. Otherwise, they will just end up in the garbage disposal.
According to Liu Yongfeng, the senior project manager of Baidu’s deep learning platform and the person in charge of this whole project, they are already looking forward to deploying the technology based on their current model some time later this year. “We expect to bring the technology to about 200 stores in central China’s Wuhan city in 2018 through our partnership with convenience store chain Today,” she explained. “The more data we can gather, the higher the accuracy we can achieve.”
With the current rise of A.I. applications in the retail industry, this move by Baidu should be of no surprise to anyone. And when even China, where the costs of labor are known to be the lowest in the entire world, wants to save money even further by eliminating more jobs held by human workers, you know that’s something worth paying attention to.
According to Wen Ying, the branding director of Today Convenience, the move is necessary to solve other problems in the industry. Instead of focusing on customer experience, retailers can turn to this new technology to try and solve an industry-wide challenge. “Time is money in the fresh food business. We have to throw away all food not sold within 24 hours,” said Wen. “For now, the demand prediction is all based on human experience.”
However, Wen also notes that the employee turnover rate, especially for supermarket managers, is rather high in the business. “More often than now, an experienced store managers leaves without passing on his or her knowledge to their successor,” Wen explained. “With the technology offered by Baidu, we can make sure our store managers order the right quantity of rice boxes even when they don’t have enough experience.”
That it will help save supermarkets money is a certainty. But whether or not that’s good for humanity in the long run remains a mystery.
Find out more about tomorrow’s robotic solutions for today’s problems in Robotics.news.