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In a grocery store somewhere in North America, a small drone floats from aisle to aisle, hovering like a hummingbird that has traded its nimble wings for tiny propellers.

Each time the autonomous robot drops down to scan a crowded shelf using an onboard camera, the machine collects valuable data about the store’s ever-changing inventory.

What would take a person hours to accomplish — tediously checking shelves for missing or misplaced products — is accomplished in minutes by the tiny aircraft. Once finished, the drone uploads its findings to the cloud, setting a massive supply chain in motion and offering the store’s owners, and potentially brand manufacturers, the kind of precise data about shopping habits that has largely eluded brick-and-mortar stores.

It may sound like a sequence from some high-tech vision of the future, but the drone and the artificial intelligence behind it — created by an Austin-based start-up and data subscription service called Pensa — already has been tested in multiple retail outlets and probably will begin appearing in grocery stores later this year.

Not so long ago, stepping inside a grocery store, with its canned goods, harsh lighting and outdated Muzak playlists, felt like going back in time. The industry’s business model had changed little over the past century. Now, experts say, the industry finds itself in the midst of a technological upheaval, one that is providing the public with a glimpse of a future far beyond self-service kiosks and online shopping.

Those changes are not without risk. As U.S. retail companies embrace automation, many experts believe that the impact on jobs will be significant, with some analysts predicting as many as 7.5 million retail workers could lose their jobs over the next decade. And yet, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests the retail-sales labor force will grow over the decade between 2016 and 2026, although more slowly than average. 

In recent months, Kroger, the nation's largest grocer, introduced a new fleet of autonomous delivery vehicles, and Giant Food Stores rolled out a series of robotic assistants named “Marty” that scan shelves and identify hazardous spills. Last year, Kroger introduced a system called “Scan, Bag, Go” that allows customers to scan and pay for grocery items as they shop — with their smartphone.

Since last month, Walmart customers have been able to order groceries using a Google assistant, joining Amazon-owned Whole Foods, which partnered with Amazon’s Echo last year so that customers can shop using voice commands.

By next year, Walmart — which also sells $200 billion worth of groceries each year and remains the world’s largest private employer with 1.5 million Americans on its payroll — plans to have autonomous floor-scrubbing robots at nearly half of its 4,700 U.S. stores, part of a major effort to upgrade its business by harnessing the convenience of intelligent machines.

Pensa CEO Richard Schwartz says it’s developments such as these that make grocery stores “ground zero” for the blurring of the online and offline worlds. He identified several forces within the industry that have resulted in a swelling of innovation:

  • Convenience: Busy lifestyles mean consumers increasingly expect companies to make the shopping experience frictionless so they can reclaim their time.
  • Experimentation: The combination of delivery, pickup and in-person shopping is challenging inventory and supply chains, forcing grocery chains to partner with robotics companies and introduce new forms of automation and high technology.
  • Disruption: Increasingly efficient online shopping means brick-and-mortar chains are under pressure to evolve.

“Amazon is right behind all of this, waking everybody up and basically challenging the industry to find an effective way to do that end-to-end delivery to the consumer with more combinations and more instant gratification,” Pensa said. (Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

He added: “Somehow, the future of retail has to marry that convenience with tighter control over knowing what’s available for sale and how much product should be in each location, without completely redesigning every store, everywhere, for every product, in order to compete and deliver effectively.”

There is perhaps no grocery seller embracing futuristic technology faster than Walmart, the retail juggernaut, which began using Oculus VR headsets to train employees at its nationwide academies in 2017.

At their recently opened “Intelligent Retail Lab” in Levittown, N.Y., the company has turned a 50,000 square-foot store into a mass experiment in new technologies. Using an array of cameras, sensors and processors, the artificially intelligent store automatically sends out-of-stock notifications to internal apps monitored by store employees.

The store has enough processing power to download three years’ worth of music (27,000 hours) each second, Walmart said.

“With technology performing mundane tasks like evaluating if shopping carts need to be corralled, associates will be able to spend more time on tasks humans can do best, such as helping customers or adding creative touches to merchandise displays,” the company said in a statement.

If that’s true, according to Erikka Knuti, the communications director at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, then customers are going to respond positively to an influx of new technologies. The key, she said, is for businesses to take a hybrid approach that introduces useful technology while also enhancing customer service.

“If you think people don’t want to interact with somebody when they make their purchases then you’re not reading the tea leaves,” Knuti said.

For a recent example of stores implementing technology poorly, Knuti pointed to Marty, the googly-eyed, 7-foot-tall, robot patrolling grocery stores up and down the East Coast.

“People hate Marty,” Knuti said. “He moves around the store and people feel like he’s watching them. Small children and toddlers cry —— he’s creepy!”

“If you’re looking at technology and innovation and not looking at improving the customer experience, it’s not really technology that’s going to move your business forward,” she added.

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Infowars host Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos and Laura Loomer. These are among the several far-right and anti-Semitic figures and organizations Facebook permanently banned yesterday for being “dangerous,” as my colleague Elizabeth Dwoskin reports

Elizabeth notes it's “a sign that the social network is more aggressively enforcing its hate-speech policies at a moment when bigoted violence is on the rise around the world.” 

While Facebook insists that it's always “banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology,” it has until recently largely resisted permanent bans, Elizabeth explains. The company, as she notes, has long held “that objectionable speech is permissible, so long as it doesn’t bleed into hate. Facebook has also been wary of offending conservatives, who have become vocal about allegations that the company unfairly censors their speech.”

The bans earned praise from the head of the Anti-Defamation League, who also challenged the companies to do more to remove hate speech on their platforms: 

More details from Elizabeth: "Facebook had removed the accounts, fan pages, and groups affiliated with these individuals after it reevaluated the content that they had posted previously, or had reexamined their activities outside of Facebook, the company said. The removal also pertains to at least one of the organizations run by these people, Jones’ Infowars."

NIBBLES: Can YouTube police itself? That's a core question The Economist's Gady Epstein posed during two days with the company's top executives, including its CEO Susan Wojcicki. 

Wojcicki says the answer is yes. “I actually think I can solve it or at least I think I can provide a blueprint about how to address these issues that no one else has figured out," she told the Economist.

The stakes are high, as the Economist points out: "Thus far such confidence is difficult to credit. But how YouTube chooses to moderate its content, and how governments compel it to do so, will affect not only the world’s most popular video service. It will also help shape the acceptable contours of free speech online, and the lives of the people who produce, consume or are otherwise affected by digital content." 

Here's Wojcicki's recipe for tackling the problem: "What is needed, she says, is a thoughtful tightening of restrictions, guided by consultation with experts, that can be enforced consistently across YouTube’s vast array of content, backed by the power of artificial intelligence." 

The piece is worth a read and begins with this inside look at how Wojcicki herself was first alerted to the attacks in New Zealand -- and the scramble in the company that followed: 

"[Wojcicki] received the first message about the massacre in New Zealand at around 8pm. Assaults on two mosques in Christchurch had begun minutes earlier. The shooter had live-streamed the killings on Facebook and the footage from the social-media site was being shared on YouTube as the killer had clearly hoped. Ms Wojcicki checked in with her team. Executives and software engineers were looking for different versions of the video so that machine-learning programs could be trained to hunt for them. Thousands of human reviewers were scouring through videos that had been automatically tagged, sorting news reports and the like from the offending footage. The world’s largest video platform—owned by Google, the world’s most powerful search engine—was mobilised to cleanse itself of the horrific clip.

"It failed. Before she went to bed at 1am Ms Wojcicki was still able to find the video (she chose not to watch it). In the morning copies of the video continued to be accessible using generic keyword searches. New versions were being uploaded more quickly than they could be identified and taken down. Finally, at 6am, Ms Wojcicki decided to remove all videos flagged as suspect, without waiting for a human review—a first for YouTube. Hours later, the site also blocked users from filtering searches by new uploads, another first. 'We don’t want to be the place where people are finding that,' says Ms Wojcicki."

BYTES: Facebook's potential settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over data privacy breaches is likely to include WhatsApp, the Wall Street Journal's John D. McKinnon reports. "Expanding the agreement to include WhatsApp comes as Facebook itself moves to shift some emphasis away from its namesake social-media service to emphasize private messaging as consumers become increasingly concerned over privacy and how their information is used," John notes. "It wasn’t immediately clear whether Instagram, another Facebook-owned service, would be covered under the settlement being negotiated with the Federal Trade Commission." 

We should have answers soon enough: The settlement currently being negotiated with the FTC is "nearing completion... with only relatively narrow issues still under discussion, and could be finished within a week or so," a person familiar with the matter tells John. 

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