How AI And Robots Can Reduce Ecosystem Friction

Friction is everywhere – even the not-quite-vacuum of outer space has it. Closer to earth, friction can make a mess of commerce and payments, especially as impatient consumers have multiple options for where to spend their time and money.

But the fight against friction – one of the defining payments and commerce endeavors of this decade, and the one about to start – is getting a boost from artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Those helping hands of technology are still in the early stages, but developments are coming at a quicker pace, with significant and measurable impacts sure to follow in many cases.

This week (Dec. 3), news emerged that SoftBank, a major player in tech funding, had led a $30 million Series A funding round for the nearly five-year-old Accel Robotics. As Venture Beat put it, “Accel Robotics is developing the AI and computer vision smarts needed for checkout-free stores, which are designed to make queuing a thing of the past and will generate vast swathes of consumer data. The general idea is that the shopper simply walks into a store, picks items from the shelves and then walks out again – with the receipt sent directly to their mobile device.”

Details of those efforts are not exactly clear just yet, but the move fits into the broader trend of using AI and even robots to remove friction from not only supermarket shopping experiences – Amazon is among the leaders in pushing for cashierless grocery stores – but also other areas of commerce and the broader ecosystems built around retail and payments.

Amazon and the Home Ecosystem

Let’s stick with Amazon for a moment.

As everyone knows, the eCommerce operator is making major plays to solidify command of the home commerce ecosystem via voice-activated and other devices, and also through quick home delivery of products ordered through connected home appliances. As the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow, it is building a home-based ecosystem for retail and payments, and you can bet that robots and AI will be a bigger part of those efforts in the 2020s.

Amazon reportedly is at work on a higher-quality Echo speaker as well as its home robot. The eCommerce retailer is looking to roll out the new Echo product by 2020, per unnamed sources, Bloomberg reported. The speaker’s prototypes are said to be wider than the existing Echo to allow for more components. It was also reported that the robot has wheels and can be controlled through Alexa voice commands. Amazon Lab126, a Sunnyvale, California-based research and development arm, is developing the devices.

Google Moves

Google, meanwhile, is making its own moves to bring more artificial intelligence to commerce and payments ecosystems. One recent example serves to demonstrate that point. In late November, Google announced that consumers can book dinners and movies – a staple of date nights, among other things – via Duplex using Google Assistant.

Google Duplex, which was introduced at the May 2018 I/O developers conference, features the ability to make restaurant reservations. The AI-powered technology has now been extended for movie ticket purchases. The next offering will be the ability to reserve car rentals.

Android users can use Assistant for ticket purchases in over 70 cinemas and ticketing services, including Fandango and MovieTickets.com. The service uses the data saved by Google Chrome users to pre-fill personal information as needed. It then analyzes screens to either deliver its own prompts or to let users interact with the website itself. Payment can be processed with a card or another funding source linked to Google Pay.

That doesn’t mean everything has gone totally smoothly for Google – nor will it go totally smoothly for other players using AI and robots to remove friction from payments and commerce ecosystems. In Google’s case, the company initially took a lot of criticism for enabling Google Assistant to mimic a human so well. Google promised that Assistant would introduce itself so that no one would be misled into thinking they were speaking to a human, Venture Beat reported.

Artificial intelligence – the apparent main aim of this new Accel funding round – also will enable more personal commerce experiences for consumers, a trend that promises to gain even more steam in the 2020s, at least if current trends and observations are to be trusted.

As one recent analysis put it, “a disruptive technology such as AI offers plenty of benefits to the retail industry. The retailers and the customers both experience … superior interaction with the right integration of AI technology.” Even so, there are some fine lines. “No matter how much personalization a website achieves through AI tools, it’s the personal meet-and-greet touch of a retail store that sets it apart. Too much automation might rob it of the human interface. If a retail outlet starts resembling an eCommerce website’s homepage, then customers might not feel tempted to visit the store in the first place.”

Store AI

Personalization will be a big part of AI efforts for ecosystems going forward, as explained in a PYMNTS interview with Omer Golan, founder and CEO of Outernets. While personalization more often relates to eCommerce, digital-focused firms like Outernets aim to bring the concept to life in physical store locations.

The company converts static walls, glass and displays into interactive, customizable digital experiences. Because Outernets doesn’t know the name of the customer who is looking at a display from outside the store, it doesn’t personalize the content to each individual shopper. Instead, based on a general profile about the consumer – his or her behavior, mood, belongings, preferred brands or location – the company aims to display products through what Golan calls contextualization.

At the simplest level, the window ad would show men’s clothes if a man passes by the store. Conversely, the display would change to show women’s attire if a woman is looking at the screen. It might recognize that a customer is male, 35 years old and passing by a particular location, and then choose content based on what would best appeal to him.

Taking the concept a step further, with the use of AI, Golan said, “We can be more spontaneous.” If the technology detects a couple walking by the store, for example, it could offer a two-for-one promotion. And if it determines a family is passing by, the display could show a discount on a family pack.

Friction is the common enemy in commerce and payments, but AI and robots are being developed to reduce that tension and hassle.