How AI will now ‘shop’ and purchase for you

With differentiation on the rise, can AI help us find and buy what's right for us?
10 October 2018

Sit back and relax, AI will shop for you. Source: Shutterstock

Turn on the television now and you’ll see advertisements that promise to automate our lives around us to a level that none of us thought previously imaginable.

Not just automatic washing machines, toasters, kettles and other household appliances (we’ve had those since at least the 1950s, after all), but automated vacuum robots, intelligent video-empowered doorbells and soon, of course, self-driving cars too.

But there’s a problem in this model.

All that automation out there will make our head spin; the market offers so much choice in terms of product and price differentiation, how can we be expected to select the right product to suit our needs?

There are as many as 10 different types of Snickers available today, how can we be expected to know which one we need on any given day?

AI to the rescue

Automation may be the route of the problem, but it also holds the answer in the form of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

In retail, for example, AI is being applied to the entire supply chain from backend manufacturing, logistics and sales all the way up to customer recommendations, sales and delivery.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, it is the customer recommendations side of the AI retail coin that is garnering the most interest (or at least getting the most media attention).

Companies in this space include Affinity, a firm that has developed an AI-powered mobile app that provides customers with purchasing suggestions based on an algorithmic analysis of body size, shape, style, fit and ‘event attire appropriateness’.

The machine learning behind this Affinity’s recommendation engine learns each customer’s individual style and, in theory at least, gets better over time.

Affinity CEO Abigail Holtz has admitted that, right now, fashion automation might only still be able to deliver at somewhere around 70% accuracy and that her firm still makes widespread use of ‘human experts’ to augment the AI systems already in place.

“Over time, we will utilize more and more computer vision and machine learning to replace manual human processes, but we will always prioritize solving problems well above full automation,” said Holtz.

From fashion to software

It’s usually quite a broad leap from fashion to the software industry, as many readers will probably have noted. Programmers often favor shorts and sandals on cold winter days and Star Wars t-shirts in corporate strategy meetings are considered normal.

Fashion shares its use of AI with the software industry at the procurement end of the spectrum, that is – the formalized purchasing element inside any given IT department where a buyer has to make decisions about which software packages, tools, and databases the team will use on the road ahead.

Technology marketplace company Spiceworks has detailed how it thinks new Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities can be used to drive a new personalization factor at the connection point between technology buyers and sellers.

Other industries

If not quite refined and fully evolved, the move to start engineering the application of AI at this level is widespread across just about every industry on the planet.

“From digital banking to online commerce, AI lets businesses mitigate financial and reputational risk, without compromising customer experience. A frictionless customer experience is not a luxury; it is a necessity,” said Yinglian Xie, CEO and Co-founder at DataVisor, Inc.

“Proving online identities once meant multiple layers of authentication when users logged in. With AI, thousands of digital behaviors (including network origins, device type and activities) are combined for a digital DNA, uniquely tied to each customer. This ‘zero factor authentication’ is easier for users, and businesses have better insight into possibly fraudulent accounts,” added Xie.

Thinking about these digital behaviors in general and looking beyond retail and technology as specific use cases, we can see big legal information firms such as Lexis Nexis taking what is effectively the same approach. Describing itself as a ‘computer assisted legal research’ business, Lexis Nexis has openly explained that some jobs will disappear as a result of AI.

With much of the legal business reliant on ‘casebook research’, that function can now be performed through computer-powered data archives. What took humans days or weeks can now be achieved in seconds, if not milliseconds.

Manufacturing firms are using AI to manage the materials procurement phase of their supply chains. Cake baking business are using AI to identify new customer segments, while at the same time making sure they don’t over-order on icing, frosting and decorations. Oil rigs are running on AI backbones that help control how much energy each installation uses.

Automation makes things faster, but it also makes it harder for us to know what to buy, when to sell, what to choose and when to apply new products and services. Making sure we also use automation technologies and AI to do our shopping will be key to being smart with being smarter.