Apr 5, 2024 - News

Amazon's no-checkout flop shows AI's limits

Illustration of  a shopping cart about to slip on a banana peel.

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Amazon's decision to shut down its grocery stores' flashy "Just Walk Out" technology delivered a slap in the face to some of the most extreme predictions about AI.

Why it matters: AI is still not ready to operate on its own in complex physical environments full of people, like grocery stores or roads.

Driving the news: Amazon is phasing out the system that lets shoppers bypass checkout lines by tracking their purchases with cameras and sensors in its full-size Amazon Fresh grocery stores.

  • In Seattle, Fresh on Capitol Hill — the first full-size cashier-less Amazon Go Grocery store, which opened in 2020 — will close this weekend, per GeekWire.
  • The technology will continue to operate in Amazon Go convenience stores, but in larger stores, Amazon says shoppers will use a "smart" cart that scans and registers each item as it's added.

Between the lines: The experiment in cashier-free stores offered convenience, but the data-obsessed tech giant seems to have concluded that it wasn't improving fast enough to make it cost-effective, experts suggest.

How it worked: Just Walk Out — like many AI systems — relied a lot on old-school human labor.

  • Amazon used workers in India to label the data that trained its object-recognition AI. They also served as backup reviewers for problem transactions.

The AI industry relies heavily on labor, often in developing countries, for data labeling tasks.

  • AI experts argue that most of today's systems won't work accurately and safely without a human being in the loop, but the system is supposed to keep improving until it no longer needs human feedback.

What we're watching: AI may not be ready to make supermarket checkouts obsolete, but there's a silver lining: If it's not capable of tabulating a grocery bill on its own, it's also not able to destroy humanity.

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