How far should retailers go with the use of computer vision?
Cleber Ikeda is Investigative Analytics and Intelligence Director at Walmart. Any views and opinions expressed herein are personal and may not represent those of Walmart. The content of this article does not contain nor reference to confidential, proprietary information of Walmart.
Retailers have found plenty of use cases for computer vision (CV), from surveillance to sentiment analysis to line management. The process of capturing, storing and analyzing shoppers’ images can generate great insights and outputs and, at the same time, impose relevant ethical challenges for retailers.
One of the most popular CV applications is the combination of high-definition cameras and artificial intelligence (AI) to detect customers who have missed scans at self-checkouts in stores. Another use case is the application of artificial intelligence and augmented reality tech for trying on clothes. The primary risks of these technology uses are inefficacy and inaccuracy due to unbalanced training data sets. Serious research in the area has shown, for example, that CV technology did not perform as accurately for people with darker skin tones compared to those with lighter skin. The gap between intersectional groups (e.g., dark-woman versus light-man) was demonstrated to be even greater.
Sentiment analysis based on facial analysis can prompt personalized in-store advertising or provide inputs for customer satisfaction. Personal information like biometrics, however, must be protected and consent must always be requested. Retailers must promote a culture of transparency and make customers aware of the technologies that are being applied to collect, process and use their data.
CV has also been deployed to support store staff by managing lines and aisles in a way that makes the shopping experience more pleasant and frictionless. In the pandemic era, it can also help retailers control store capacity and redesign space to preserve minimum distance among shoppers. The ethical aspect to consider here is that technologies must not use customers’ data to track location and activities beyond the specific purposes they were designed for.
Amazon.com and Microsoft in 2020 decided to halt the sale of their facial recognition technologies to law enforcement agencies. IBM announced it would exit the business completely.
Those decisions were taken in a context of increasing protests against police truculence with Blacks in the U.S. that put pressure on legislators to create laws that clearly regulate the technology. Though the dialogue on the matter has increased worldwide, there has been little progress made on regulations that could provide legal grounds for the development of such technology while protecting citizens from the potentially harmful consequences of its use.
- Walmart is using AI-powered cameras to prevent theft at checkout lanes – The Verge
- Virtual Try-On Is More Than A Pandemic Trend And These Brands Are Reaping The Rewards – Forbes
- Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities in Commercial Gender Classification – Proceedings
- A.I. Can’t Detect Our Emotions – OneZero
- Microsoft won’t sell police its facial-recognition technology, following similar moves by Amazon and IBM – The Washington Post
- Can facial recognition outlast its bad press? – RetailWire
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you see as legitimate use cases for computer vision and facial recognition technologies at retail? What ethical demands are placed on retailers that make use of these types of technologies?