Retail

Artificial Intelligence Seeks Real Shoppers

Let’s check in with who’s on the AI (artificial intelligence) train.

Apple kicked things off this year, announcing back in January that it had purchased Emotient, an AI tech startup in the facial recognition business.

Did Apple say why it bought that company? Of course, it did not; mind your own business.

Jump ahead to spring, and the next big company in the retail space (specifically, the biggest company in eCommerce) to make an AI-related move this year was Amazon. In a hush-hush manner similar to Apple’s, the online retail giant reportedly made the move the previous year, but it didn’t get confirmed (more or less) until April, when the artificial intelligence image recognition technology startup Orbeus all but said (without actually saying it) that it was super-psyched to have been acquired by Amazon.

What were (are) Amazon’s plans for the AI image recognition software? A security application? Enhancements for its Fire TV and gaming platforms? The options appeared limitless … and Amazon stayed mum about the whole thing.

This very week, another bit of AI action. Sony bucked the trend somewhat by actually speaking on the record about the fact that it has invested in the AI machine technology startup Cogitai, with Sony CEO Hiroaki Kitano explaining that his company made the move because it feels like it is “lagging behind” others in the exploration of practical applications for artificial intelligence.

So, what’s Sony’s plan?

“We are considering various options,” Kitano told Reuters, “including a robot.”

YEAH! A g.d. ROBOT! Now, we’re getting somewhere.

But are we, though — really?

With artificial intelligence currently existing in that convoluted space of “there’s a lot of potential for this thing and we want to do something with it … but there’s a lot that we don’t fully understand about it and also we want to know what other people might be doing with it but we don’t want them to know what we might be doing [and so on],” it stands to reason that a lot major players in the retail space would keep their pursuits in that area very close to the vest for the time being.

Reasonable from a business perspective but frustrating from a practical one. Retail is, by definition, a consumer-facing industry, and consumers might respond quite well if any retail company — just one, even — was just a little more forthcoming about its specific plans for the dazzling and mysterious technology that is AI.

Let us all be grateful, then, that eBay appears to be doing just that.

Earlier this month, the online marketplace vanguard announced that it had acquired Expertmaker, a Swedish company in the business(es) of artificial intelligence, machine learning and Big Data analytics.

And eBay, in a welcome change of pace, did not play coy about its plans for all that fun technology.

Amit Menipaz, vice president and general manager of structured data at eBay, directly stated to Internet Retailer: “As a part of eBay, Expertmaker’s technology, expertise and talented engineers will play an important role in helping advance eBay’s structured data initiative. EBay’s structured data effort is a multiyear journey, and we believe the innovation and significant expertise that Expertmaker brings to eBay will help us build a best-in-class product catalog and, in turn, better serve our customers.”

So … Structured data! Yeah! That’s … something.

OK — it’s not very sexy, especially in context with the pie-in-the-sky prospects that often get bandied about in the AI conversation. In fact, the very term “structured data” connotes less of an association with science fiction and more with something like … factual math.

But it is important, in terms of the potential for moving the online shopping experience forward. As Forbes explains, the AI tech that eBay has acquired through its Expertmaker acquisition allows for hidden value to be extracted from data. That means that eBay can use it to clean up and structure (yes — structure) the arguably overwhelming amounts of listings — many of which are incomplete — that visitors to the site are regularly inundated with. Giving the AI tech a go at that often confusing jumble of unclear and unspecific options can turn it into a much more user-friendly experience, filling in the gaps, for example, of those incomplete product listings with information from other sources.

In the end, the outlet attests, searches on the eBay platform can become much more meaningful to the shopper, allowing him to refine his efforts based on category specifications.

End result? The easier it is for an online shopper to find something, the more likely it is that he will buy it.

As eBay Chief Product Officer R.J. Pittman said in his remarks (shared by Retail Dive) at the recent Shoptalk 2016 retail conference about the potential benefits of integrating AI technology with eCommerce: “It’s about clicking in, getting deeper and providing a much richer shopping experience.”

It ain’t necessarily razzle-dazzle, but it sure seems like good business.

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