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AI: Amazon's answer for everything

por Barrett Grosse (2019-08-13)


id="article-body" class="row" section="article-body"> At Amazon's re:MARS robotics and AI conference, the humans remain in control, for now.

MA 2Port Node onPC 1K - \u6771\u6fc2\u548c\u5149Ben Fox Rubin/CNET It just so happens that the phrase "turn the lights on" sounds a lot like the word "tenderloin." That seemingly unimportant phonetic connection became an early challenge for Amazon's Alexa Shopping team. After all, the world's largest online store didn't want to ship its customers surprise packages of meat when all they wanted was to flick on a light switch.

So the company devised a ranking system for its voice commands, placing a request for the lights, which is used a lot, high above a request for tenderloin, which isn't. To hone this system, the company gave Alexa contextual awareness too, so the voice assistant could tell if a conversation is related to groceries and not smart home controls.

One of Amazon's new warehouse robot designs, shown at re:MARS.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET "When we identify that's the context of your dialogue, we then do the ranking within that context and recognize that the word you actually said was 'tenderloin,' " Chuck Moore, vice president of Alexa Shopping, told me during Amazon's re:MARS artificial intelligence and robotics conference in Las Vegas earlier this month.

This precise voice-recognition processing is part of Amazon's push to bring its AI expertise and automation to just about every layer of its business, including its warehouse robots, cashierless retail stores and, of course, Alexa. This behind-the-scenes tech is already providing Amazon's customers with faster deliveries and https://www.northamptonapl.org/search?search_api_views_fulltext=https%3A%2F%2Fluckylistcasino.com%2Fredtigergaming.html helping people streamline their errands, like creating a shopping list or picking up a gallon of milk.

The retail giant is just one of many tech heavy-hitters pouring resources into AI, which allows computers and bots to perform higher-level tasks like decision-making and predicting customers' needs. Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook are also touting how the technology can change and improve our lives.

At re:MARS, CNET spoke to four Amazon executives representing a wide range of its businesses. They provided an exclusive look into some of the inner workings of Amazon's AI development, showing how the tech has become the critical ingredient they use to compete against rival retailers like Walmart and cloud-service providers like Microsoft and Google.

"[AI] is sprinkled everywhere," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said after attending re:MARS. "It's an integral part of every service they offer, every product they make and every business they run."

We're not particularly worried about job displacement ... We're growing, we need to hire more people. Brad Porter, Amazon But automation and AI have also become dirty words for plenty of people, with the terms dredging up worries about robots stealing peoples' jobs. Though automation of tasks has happened for centuries, the rapid development of new technology has the potential to disrupt huge chunks of the economy. Analysts at Oxford Economics now predict up to 20 million global manufacturing jobs could be automated out of existence by 2030. Other studies say tens of millions of US jobs are at high risk, too, particularly low-skill repetitive work like transportation and warehouses.

Amazon executives say they don't see gloom and doom in AI and automation, noting that they continue to hire thousands more people to work alongside their warehouse bots and to create the latest machine-learning code.

Amazon's re:MARS conference, which played host to a robot dog, a drone and several human speakers.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET "We're not particularly worried about job displacement," Brad Porter, an Amazon robotics vice president, said. "It's not, 'Oh, do we have too many people?' That's never the problem we're trying to solve. We're growing, we need to hire more people."

Milanesi noted that the company's leaders made an effort to talk at the conference about both the benefits of AI and the many potential problems.

"The fact that they are acknowledging that there is complexity that needs to be addressed, and needs to be addressed right, is the critical first step," she said.

Inside Amazon Go's AI brain
Onstage in front of thousands of re:MARS attendees at the Aria Resort & Casino, Dilp Kumar, vice president of Amazon Go, showed a bird's-eye video of what Amazon's hundreds of AI-infused cameras see in its Go stores.

Dilip Kumar onstage at re:MARS.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET These convenience stores let customers check in at turnstiles, grab what they want and walk out without having to stop at a register. The cameras perceive the store floor as a jumble of bubbles -- each representing a shopper -- vibrating and moving around, some of them clumped together.

Amazon relies on AI software to make sense of this information and ensure customers are charged for only what they take out of the store. 

Later, in an Aria conference room, Kumar told me the Go store software was fed loads of videos to train it on all kinds of potential situations it may come across. When engineers identified weaknesses in the system, they shot footage of real people at a store performing specific actions, such as two shoppers grabbing for the same product at the same time, then used those images to improve the AI. Kumar's team added into the mix videos of computer-generated stores and customers, too.

Figuring out what items were picked up was another complicated problem. Potato chip bags are often crumpled, obscuring their labels. Packages of the same brand's coffee can look nearly identical. Plus, new products get added in all the time, and existing ones get new packaging. Add to that dozens of customers milling around, picking up and moving things, sometimes blocking the view of the Go cameras.

Kumar said his team found that pointing out products' distinguishing characteristics for the AI didn't work. For example, telling the machines to check the labels to decipher the difference between raspberry and strawberry jam falls apart pretty quickly.

"As you increase the number of items, or as there are even small changes in packaging, it can just become very brittle," he said.