Artificial intelligence. It's been the mot du jour of 2017, with countless articles, news pieces, research and more exploring whether it'll take our jobs, and how it will run our lives. Bar a few enlightened souls, AI is still pretty much referred to as something that will happen in the future, albeit one that's not-too-distant. But actually, it's here now and is a key part of how we live and consume, in the most fundamental of acts: shopping.
AI now permeates every aspect of online shopping, especially when it comes to customer interactions. It powers those smart product recommendations when you're buying your groceries online - just one example of how AI is making our shopping experiences more personalised, enjoyable and, just as importantly, easy.
What it's also doing is raising our expectations of the bricks-and-mortar, IRL shops on our high streets. Simply put, we're expecting more than ever from our experience of shopping.
Pop-up stalls, immersive experiences and other inventive shoot-offs have made us demand more from our experience, especially when it comes to shopping. We want the best, we want the shiniest tech, and if what we get isn't up to scratch, well, we'll just take our hard-earned cash elsewhere.
It turns out 77 per cent of us feel AI can transform our shopping experiences, while a similar number think retailers should be doing more to bring technology into their stores. Clearly, as shoppers, we have expectations of AI, but retailers too understand how it can drive much-needed revamps in an environment where having a smooth in-store experience, a cheery cashier and a top-drawer bargain bin is no longer enough.
The point of AI being used in this context is to give us what we need in the easiest possible fashion. For example, online grocer Ocado uses machine learning to ascertain the sentiment behind our customer emails, so as to sift through and ensure our queries reach the right people dependent on urgency. It's not replacing the humans on the other end - it's aiding them, and us to boot.
Another great example of where AI could be used to further effect is Pinterest. As fun as the platform may be, it's incredibly time-consuming to sift through the content and find relevant products that appeal to us. You add all the home furniture you like, and you've wasted five hours. And for what? A crude, paid-for rank search that results in nothing more than the highest bidder into your browser? That's not personalisation. That's corporate incentive. That's lazy.
Customer experience should essentially be the end goal of sites like Pinterest. They're aspirational platforms - they show you what you could have, but with sophisticated AI, they could show what you can have before you even realise it yourself. Mining data, browsing habits and personal details come part and parcel with the online experience nowadays, but if you're actually getting something out of it, as in this instance, the exchange becomes much less domineering on AI's behalf.
Giving credit where it's due, Pinterest has already made a valiant attempt at pioneering AI. Its visual search tool allows you to snap objects you see in real life and, scouring its endless index of images, offers matches and variants to that item. It's also coupled with a nifty 'buy' button. Furniture retailer Wayfair now offers a similar feature, also offering the option to save your findings. Going a step further, West Elm's new AI tool is actually programmed to scan Pinterest, using neutral networks to identify what your style is and providing results in a matter of seconds.
But even with the frontier that is online retail, it's still a guessing game. Both should know what you want by way of data linked to you directly - surely they have the technology and the intel to do this.
The same goes for supermarket giants like Waitrose. Its loyalty card grants 20 per cent off your ten favourite items, allowing you to change the selection up to ten times a month. But you have to do this manually. Surely the way forward, the way to incentivise us into thinking this is even more worthwhile, is to have the software learn if and when the favourite items change? As much as we're creatures of habit, the option for fluctuation offers a steadfast ladder for us to hop on as we shop.
Aside from assisting on a top-line level, AI serves another, more functional purpose when it comes to our overall shopping experience: security.
AI can efficiently search for knock-offs, quickly flagging any potential breaches of copyright and preventing the growth of a black market. It might not seem like that much of a big deal - more stuff on the cheap, eh? - but if measures aren't put in place, the market becomes saturated. The lines are blurred and, ultimately, we end up normalising the circulation of sub-par produce. It kills honest retailers and brands, and it under-serves us as customers. We deserve better than that.
In the future, AI isn't going to steal all our jobs (probably). But it is going to continue changing how we shop. In China, they're building facial recognition systems that'll identify shoppers when they enter the store. Its main function looks like a security feature as of present, but this tech could advance to offer endless possibilities for personalised recommendations further down the line.
As a powerful, useful customer experience moves from nicety to necessity, AI will be on hand to offer convenience and security, ensuring our road to shopping utopia is as smooth as possible. And hopefully, it'll be coming to a store near you, soon.