Amazon created its empire by making online shopping easy. Now, it’s trying to do the same thing in the real world. It has just opened a grocery store in Seattle with no checkout line and no cashiers. Instead, you walk in, grab what you want, and walk out. Amazon automatically knows who you are and what you took, so once you leave, your Amazon account is automatically billed.
So how does it work? Hey, no one knows, and Amazon won’t really say. Also, right now, only Amazon employees can shop there: even the press isn’t being let in. (Amazon says Go will be open to everyone starting early next year). All we know is that it requires a special Amazon Go smartphone app, and that the House of Bezos is using some combination of machine learning, computer vision, and sensors to keep track of the items that customers pick up.
Speculatively, though, it appears to work like this. When you scan your Amazon Go app at the turnstiles, it logs you in via NFC, the technology Apple Pay uses to let you pay with your smartphone. This initial scan essentially gives Amazon permission to track you and bill you for what you take from the shelves. From there, Amazon starts tracking your face with ubiquitous video cams throughout the store, essentially tying your physical identity to your Amazon account. From there, it uses computer vision to detect which sections of the store you visit and where you take your products from. When you walk through the turnstiles again, it recognizes your face, logs you out, and bills your Amazon credit card.
Even if this isn’t exactly the way the technology works, the effect is the same: it means that when you shop at an Amazon Go store, you’ll be under constant video surveillance, with AIs poring over your every move to analyze how you shop. Considering the fact that Instagram and other networks will already target you with ads for Amazon items you literally looked at once, the world’s largest e-retailer will soon be able to gather just as much data on how you shop in meatspace as it does online.
Is the convenience of walking into a store and not having to deal with a clerk worth giving Amazon that level of scrutiny into your meatspace consumer habits? Possibly not, but when Amazon in its video says it has spent the past four years asking what shopping would look like if you could just walk in, grab what you want, and go, that’s what the company really means: it has spent four years figuring out how to start tracking you in the real world as effectively as it does online.
If that makes you uncomfortable? Keep waiting in line.