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When AI Stands For ‘Actually Indians’

AI generated image of a man with technology mask, flame.

The story I’m about to share with you is not directly related to the accounting profession however it’s just as relevant in this sector as any because of the principle at work: ‘AI’ isn’t always AI. In fact, it quite often isn’t. As we race toward a glorious future in which AI handles all the most boring accounting tasks and frees up professionals to do more critical thinking, let’s remember we’re living in Oz and have yet to meet the Wizard face-to-face. In this case, the Wizard is really scores of low-paid Indian workers doing work that was advertised as being next-level artificial intelligence because “a bunch of Indians watching you through cameras in a store without cashiers” doesn’t sound as cool in press releases and investor calls.

Here’s how Amazon described its ‘Just Walk Out’ technology, available at half of its Amazon Fresh grocery stores up until recently, in a September 2023 blog post (post | archive in case they scrub it later). You may recall seeing thinly veiled ads about this cool new technology floating around social media in the past few years.

Generative AI and other technologies behind Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology are making checkout lines a thing of the past.

Seattle Seahawks fans win no matter who their team is facing on the field. Their secret weapon? Artificial intelligence (AI) from Amazon.

Last year, the Seahawks’ Lumen Field became the first NFL stadium to introduce Just Walk Out technology by Amazon. It allows fans to enter a concession stand, grab whatever they want, and quickly get back to their seats, without having to wait in a checkout line or stop at a cashier.

Sounds magical, doesn’t it? Almost too good to be true even?

The feat is a combination of computer vision, object recognition, advanced sensors, deep machine learning models, and generative AI—a type of artificial intelligence that has recently captured the public’s imagination.

Amazon researchers found a way to make these technologies work together seamlessly, in the background, in order to figure out almost instantly which customer took a tuna sandwich and who got one with chicken salad, charge them correctly, and allow them to simply walk away with their items.

“Without knowing the technology, it feels like magic,” says Gérard Medioni, vice president and distinguished scientist at Amazon. “But creating that magic—determining who took what—is harder than you think.”

According to The Information, Amazon is now abandoning the Just Walk Out tech. It turns out it was less magic and more 1,000 Indian workers reviewing and labeling transactions as they watched through the cashier-free stores’ many cameras.

Futurism’s The Byte writes:

The tech, which was only available at half of the e-commerce giant’s Amazon Fresh stores, used a host of cameras and sensors to track what shoppers left the store with. But instead of closing the technological loop with pure automation and AI, the company also had to rely on an army of over 1,000 workers in India, who were acting as remote cashiers.

In other words, Just Walk Out — a highly invasive marketing ploy to get more customers to shop at its stores while actively undercutting the local job market — will be missed by few.

I’ve never been in an Amazon Fresh store but BBC Technology Editor Zoe Kleinman has and said this:

The next time you take in a flowy press release about the latest AI technology, exercise that skepticism and ask yourself if it’s really the future we were promised or just a bunch of people behind the curtain getting paid $2/hr.

2 thoughts on “When AI Stands For ‘Actually Indians’

  1. Much like with crypto currency fad before, I have a very strong sense that AI is just the latest scam. It may be legit…or it may just be a bunch of bullshit. I honestly don’t know yet.

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