Sep 29, 2023 - Technology

Walmart experiments with generative AI to help people shop

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Image: Walmart

Last month Walmart announced a generative AI tool for office workers and now the company is showing off how the tech can help its shoppers.

Why it matters: With its size and resources, Walmart could use generative AI in whichever ways it wants. Its choices indicate where it sees the most benefit today.

Details: In a briefing with reporters in San Francisco on Thursday, Walmart showed how the technology can be useful, both to directly communicate with customers as well as behind the scenes, to help customers envision what products would look like in their homes or on their bodies.

  • The first, a shopping assistant, is designed to help customers who are looking to take on a project, such as planning a birthday party, decorating a home for the holidays or outfitting a new dorm room. The assistant, which Walmart hopes to begin testing in the coming weeks, can also help customers decide among products, such as choosing which cell phone would be best suited for a 10-year-old.
  • Generative AI also allows Walmart to create three-dimensional objects from still photos, removing any occlusions from, say an arm or hand covering part of an outfit. The results are clothes that can be placed on a virtual model or furniture and electronics to be realistically placed inside a scan of one's living room.
  • Creating 3D objects using generative AI versus traditional modeling technologies can save hundreds of dollars per item and shortens the creation process from days or weeks to minutes.

Between the lines: Walmart officials were loath to say just whose AI technologies they are using, but mentioned that they are looking at all options and designing systems to be open to using whoever has the best and most cost-effective technology at a given point in time.

  • "We believe in being Switzerland," said Cheryl Ainoa, Walmart's executive vice president of global technology.

Flashback: Walmart has been serving customers via chatbots for years, using old technologies from Google and Apple. The company started work on chatbots in 2019, began testing such services in 2020 and made them broadly available starting last year.

  • Those systems, which include the ability to order products via text message, are geared more toward straightforward transactions.
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