The Intersection Between Morality and AI

Opinion: Jake Patton of Juxta shares his perspective on what goes on behind the supposedly ‘seamless’ technology
Amazon Just Walk Out
Photograph: Shutterstock

Ever since the news broke about Amazon pulling Just Walk Out (JWO) from its grocery stores, I’ve wrestled with the idea of how artificial intelligence (AI) and morality are intertwined in our strange little corner of retail tech

The primary concern was Amazon’s reported reliance on 1,000 workers in India to annotate and label shopping data. While some of the publications that reported on The Information’s original article greatly exaggerated the role of human reviewers, Amazon doesn’t deny using them. They rightfully point out that AI systems frequently have human-in-the-loop (HITL) when there’s a high value on accuracy.

But there’s still something unsettling and even deceptive about this. It’s like the curtain has been pulled back, revealing that the
Wizard of Oz stands on the shoulders of hundreds of low-wage workers halfway across the world. 

This complicated intersection between technology, labor and globalization raises difficult questions—especially with regard to convenience and privacy. 

On one hand, Amazon offers customers a convenient shopping experience that eliminates the need for a traditional checkout process. On the other hand, the system relies on the intervention of humans in an entirely different country to ensure accuracy. It feels ethically dubious, a facsimile of convenience. It’s seamless for suburbanite shoppers, but it’s a full day’s work for hundreds of low-wage workers somewhere else. 

And what of privacy? When you fill your cart or basket full of groceries, there’s something unsettling about the idea that human reviewers are likely to scrutinize high-resolution videos of your puts and takes. Who are they, what happens to your videos, and how much do they know about you given Amazon’s vast data collection efforts? It’s easy to see how this might bother people.

But there’s another more practical concern here. While technologies like Amazon JWO can increase efficiency, they also increase concerns about the loss of human touch and customer service. It’s nice to see a friendly face at the grocery store. There are certain spaces that just feel wrong once human interaction is removed, and the grocery store is one such place.

You have to wonder what JWO really accomplished at Amazon Fresh, at the end of the day. Bored employees standing at entrance gates, faceless human reviewers thousands of miles away, hidden staff scurrying about to stock shelves and gather items that customers set back on the wrong shelf sensors—it was a vast, labor-intensive machine built so you can buy cereal and frozen chicken without having to interact with another human being.

Is that a net-positive or a net-negative for our communities? It’s worth considering

Moving forward, it’s imperative for businesses and policymakers to consider not only the ethics of AI in retail and service sectors, but also the broader social effects. As technology progresses, we must ensure that AI is used in a way that respects human dignity, supports equality and safeguards our privacy and other rights. 

I think there's a more ethical and practical application of autonomous checkout technology, such as using AI to allow customers to quickly grab what they need and get back on their way.

AI doesn’t have to rely on human reviewers if it processes transactions live on the edge and send receipts in real-time. You can simply sail through the checkout process, see everything you’ve picked up displayed on a kiosk and don’t have to worry about distant eyes scrutinizing your every move. 

The goal for AI in retail should be to improve our lives. We should know that it does so without passing the buck elsewhere or creating externalities that raise ethical concerns. 

If each of us makes it a priority to have this conversation, I’m confident we’ll be better off for it. 

Jake Patton

Jake Patton is head of sales at Juxta, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based global technology company born to support the convenience retail and EV charging sectors with portable, autonomous stores.

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