Amazon’s ‘Just Walk Out’ Retail Tech Faces Controversy: Automation Dispute Amidst 1K Worker Walkout in India

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Amazon has abandoned AI-powered technology which allows customers to grab a product, walk out of a store, and pay for it using automation. The decision was made after it was reported that the “Just Walk Out System” relied on more than 1,000 remote workers.

Introduced in 2018, Amazon’s strategy to revolutionize retail with artificial intelligence (AI) included “Just Walk Out”. About half of Amazon Fresh’s stores offer an automated shopping experience. It was marketed as using a sophisticated system of cameras and sensors that tracked customers’ purchases.

Jon Jenkins, vice president of Just Walk Out Technology, described the retail innovation as a combination of computer vision and machine intelligence that allows the system “to track who takes what and charge the correct amount when they walk out.”

In 2023, Jenkins said,

The Just Walk Out technology detects a shopper’s interaction with a shelf product. Machine learning algorithms ensure that the right item is added to the cart without knowing anything about the shopper.

The system was slow and expensive to install, and despite the efforts of the e-commerce giant, it never managed to achieve full automation and AI integration. Amazon relied on over 1,000 workers in India to fill the gaps left by the system limitations. They were tasked with tasks like processing data and generating receipts. Outsourced labor was often the cause of delays, as it took hours to return data and provide receipts.

Nathan Strauss is the Amazon spokesperson who disputes The Information’s report that tech was reliant on human workers. Instead, he points to the importance of machine learning and validation.

Strauss made a statement.

It is incorrect to say that Just Walk Out relies on humans for review. Our Machine Learning data analysts’ primary responsibility is to annotate videos, which is essential for improving the machine learning model that powers Just Walk Out. The associate may also verify a small number of shopping visits when our computer vision software cannot accurately determine an individual’s purchase.

Amazon’s Just Walk Out data collection system has also raised privacy concerns among customers, despite technological advancements. The extensive collection of customer data by the company, including their in-store behaviors, raised ethical concerns and led to a 2023 class-action suit.

The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (a consumer advocacy group) sued Amazon, alleging the company sold customer data quietly to Starbucks for financial benefit without informing customers adequately of this practice. In this case, it is claimed that the illegal collection, storage, and dissemination of biometric data of customers to third parties “is at the core of this system”.

Amazon announced in 2024 that the Ring Doorbell subsidiary of Amazon would not release video footage without a warrant. This move was reportedly a result of concerns over the possibility of additional privacy lawsuits.

Amazon has been criticized for its technology, which is seen as invasive and damaging to the job market. As a result, it is now focusing on alternative solutions such as scanners and screens integrated into shopping carts known by the name Dash Carts. These shopping carts let customers scan items while they shop. This eliminates the need for a check-out counter. Dash Carts keep track of the items that are added to your cart automatically and provide a cashier-free checkout process.

As of now, Dash Carts are not widely accepted as a replacement for Just Walk Out in terms of customer satisfaction and data privacy.