Artificial Intelligence Will Soon Shop For You, But Is That A Good Thing? – Renée Richardson Gosline

MIT Sloan Prof. Renée Richardson Gosline

From WBUR’s Cognoscenti

We’ve all had bad department store shopping experiences. The aggressively cheerful salesperson. The unforgiving glare of the dressing room. The overstuffed racks of garments where none of the sizes fit, and the ones that do, don’t come in your favorite color.

The advent of online shopping has helped consumers gain more control over their shopping experiences. But digital purchases are often a gamble, too. You scroll through endless webpages to find the perfect boots only to discover your size is on back order for two months. And the items you purchase frequently disappoint: The jacket that looked so elegant on the website’s model looks awkward on your frame.

Retail prognosticators claim that artificial intelligence and other new technologies will offer shoppers salvation. In the not-so-distant future, armies of robots using retina recognition software (à la “Minority Report”) will tailor their sales pitches to your preferences and price point. Voice-activated assistants and digital mannequins will help you to find just the right fit. Shopping from home will be a breeze too: Virtual reality headsets will allow you to “try on” clothes and sample items ranging from a tube of lipstick to a tennis racket. Two-day shipping? How antiquated. In the future, your package will arrive via drones in less than two hours. It may sound like science fiction but, in fact, many stores are testing these innovations and have plans to roll them out to customers.

Before you get too excited about this version of space-age shopping, you may want to consider whether these technological advancements are beneficial. It’s clear what retailers and brands gain: your personal information — including your measurements, spending patterns, individual habits and contact details. Indeed, retailers know more about you than ever before. And new methods of machine learning that allow companies to process large amounts of personal sales data, combined with beacon technology and insights from behavioral science and predictive analytics, help retailers target their wares with pinpoint precision.

This alone is worrying. We already rely too much on technology to make decisions for us. We presume falsely that these choices are good for us, or at least benign. But this is often not the case. Think about how often you outsource decisions and tasks to technology based on the assumption that it will improve your performance. When was the last time you mapped out an efficient route to an unfamiliar address without Waze or Google? Do you know the birthday of your closest colleague, or do you rely on Facebook to remind you? When was the last time you searched for cool new music without Spotify or Pandora?

Read the full post at WBUR’s Cognoscenti.

Renée Richardson Gosline is a Senior Lecturer and Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management. 

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