Are Smart Systems Delivering Us From Evil? Or Leading us to it?

Rundles Wrap Up: Personalization technology is on the rise, but it might not be for the best.

Just when I think the world can’t get any weirder, well, it does. An article I read a few months ago has been turning over in my head ever since, and then by an odd coincidence (or was it?) it hit home.

Seems that retailers, and more specifically supermarkets, are toying with a new technology called Smart Shelf. As video shoppers look for groceries, ubiquitous “algorithms” determine things like their gender, their age and even their mood to deliver on-the-spot advertisements and product discounts.

One of the supermarket chains that is testing this system is Kroger, parent company of our own King Soopers, and as I have been mulling the creepy aspect of Smart Shelf technology, lo and behold, my own local King Soopers has been going through a complete remodel. Dang! Every time I go in there now I can’t help thinking about Aldous Huxley and the World State. Or George Orwell. Doesn’t matter: I lose my appetite when I even think about shopping there.

According to the report, if you are wearing glasses, nearby video screens can show you new frames; if you have a beard, they’ll prompt you for razors. If you are old, you’ll get Depends, and if you appear to be “sad,” they can direct you to anti-depression medication.

Personalization technology is, of course, nothing new. Amazon tracks your buying preferences and steers product “suggestions” your way on your phone, laptop or desktop, and it has been going on for years. Google does the same thing by showing ads having to do with your searches online. Facebook, despite protests, knows and tracks your preferences on a whole host of subjects, especially political leanings, and pushes – or withholds – pertinent information on your news feeds. And I couldn’t help but remember that famous Wall Street Journal article from 17 years ago that is famously referred to as the “My TiVo thinks I’m gay” story.

But the supermarket? While this is all insidious, it seems all the more egregious at a physical store where the preferences aren’t based on search, posts or buying histories – information you actively offered up – but rather on, well, spying on you. Personally. And making sometimes broad, and potentially rude and discriminatory, assumptions. I mean, geez, if the system knows I’m old or sad, it can presume I’m fat and suggest diet aids or kale, or worse, remind me that the ice cream aisle is two rows over. “Hey tubby, we’re having a sale on butter brickle today!” 

The report offered that the drugstore chain Walgreens has cooler doors with sensors and cameras, and rather than being see-through glass, the doors are video screens that show what’s inside. The system, like others, tries to guess the shopper’s age and gender, but eerily it apparently can also track a shopper’s iris and track what the shopper is looking at. My God! A Walgreens spokesperson says that such functions are off for now – wink, wink – but if they can track your iris, they can store your iris and use it remotely to thwart even the most sophisticated security firewalls for phones, bank accounts or restricted entry buildings.

The purveyors and the users of these systems have meaningless privacy policies and swear up and down that the information collected is anonymous and will not be shared, but I am beyond skeptical – I’m infuriated. What with the recent flap over FaceApp and its inherent facial recognition technology – invented by a Russian, it should be noted – it is very clear that the Smart Shelf can and most likely does have the ability to personally identify each shopper, and I can’t help but assume there is a ton of very valuable “data” to be mined and sold.

Smart Shelves, like everything else called “smart” these days – smart phones, smart homes, smart doorbells, smart speakers, etc. – seem so helpful, but they are anything but. They cajole us, they prod us, they track us, they follow us — and they know everything about us. And we have no idea whatsoever who “they” are and just what they have in mind.  

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Categories: Magazine Articles, Tech