TECH

It’s fore­casted that 800 mil­lion jobs could be lost to au­to­ma­tion by 2030.

Fashion (Canada) - - Contents - By Meghan McKenna

The tech takeover’s ef­fects on fash­ion.

Imag­ine this: You walk into your favourite store. A smil­ing sales as­so­ciate greets you by name. In a panic, you rush over to ask for his help. You’re meet­ing a date in 20 min­utes, and you need a new shirt. You de­scribe what you’re look­ing for: some­thing sexy yet so­phis­ti­cated, edgy yet clas­sic. It needs wow fac­tor but in a care­free cool-girl kind of way—you know? His eyes light up. “I have just the thing,” he says. He quickly re­turns and presents his pro­posal: “This blouse is made with a del­i­cate chif­fon fab­ric that hangs beau­ti­fully. The wrap sil­hou­ette and ad­justable tie at the waist will be flat­ter­ing for your fig­ure. It will pair well with the black wide-leg trousers you bought last week.” It’s per­fect. You com­pli­ment his taste and thank him for his help: “Pep­per, you al­ways know ex­actly what I want.” He blushes—well, maybe not. Pep­per is un­like any sales as­so­ciate who has ever helped you be­fore—and that’s be­cause Pep­per is a ro­bot. This isn’t what Pep­per is now, but it’s what Pep­per could be. Pep­per is no C-3PO (yet), but he was de­signed to make his in­ter­ac­tions with hu­mans as nat­u­ral and in­tu­itive as pos­si­ble. Pep­per has been charm­ing and en­gag­ing shop­pers since 2014, when SoftBank in­tro­duced ro­bots to Ja­panese re­tail­ers. By us­ing a net­work of sen­sors and cam­eras to de­tect and in­ter­pret your re­ac­tions, Pep­per’s “emo­tion en­gine” can sense changes in your at­ti­tude and

adapt ac­cord­ingly. So if you tilt your head or make a se­man­tic shift, Pep­per knows some­thing’s up and pro­vides rec­om­men­da­tions based on your mood, gen­der, age and pur­chase his­tory. And he tells jokes. (Ask Pep­per to ex­plain some of his func­tions and he’ll re­spond: “I don’t want to show off; this might take over 100 hours.”)

Ro­bots like Pep­per bring the ma­chine learn­ing of e-com­merce to bricks-and­mor­tar re­tail. We know that when we shop on­line, we’re be­ing watched. Com­pa­nies can tell where we’re look­ing, what we’re look­ing at and what we’re buy­ing, and this in­for­ma­tion turns into the tar­geted ads that ap­pear on our Face­book time­lines and browser ban­ners. The prob­lem is, there are peo­ple who hate on­line shop­ping—peo­ple like me. Us “mall rats” ap­pre­ci­ate the hu­man con­nec­tion of cus­tomer ser­vice, the feel of fab­ric and the glow­ing val­i­da­tion and prod­uct rec­om­men­da­tions of a well-tuned sales as­so­ciate.

But what if a com­puter could do just that? What if there was a ro­bot that could look at me, look at my past pur­chases and iden­tify which in-store items would best fit my body, my style and my needs? When SoftBank tested Pep­per at b8ta, a trendy tech re­tailer in Palo Alto, Calif., he proved his worth: Dur­ing the one-week trial, the store saw a 70 per cent in­crease in traf­fic. When Pep­per part­nered with two shop­ping cen­tres in Cal­i­for­nia, he de­liv­ered 95 per cent cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion. With num­bers like these to back ro­bot pro­duc­tiv­ity, it’s no won­der we’re see­ing more and more jobs re­placed by au­to­ma­tion. And this is just the be­gin­ning: It’s fore­casted that 800 mil­lion jobs could be lost to au­to­ma­tion by 2030. Surely an army of ro­bot sales as­so­ciates aren’t too far away—right?

Ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, they’re not. A 2013 study from the Ox­ford Martin School at Ox­ford Univer­sity claimed re­tail sales­peo­ple have a high chance of be­ing re­placed by au­to­ma­tion in the near fu­ture. And—sorry, Homo sapi­ens—it’s not hard to see why. Ro­bots never have hang­overs, they don’t take cof­fee breaks and they prob­a­bly aren’t go­ing to cry on the sales floor when their co-worker steals a sale. They’ll say hello to ev­ery cus­tomer, and they’ll do it with a smile. And they’ll drive sales. Ro­bots could also be the so­lu­tion to the one thing peo­ple hate most about head­ing into a store: sales pres­sure. Con­sumers hate nag­ging sales as­so­ciates, and the friendly, non-im­pos­ing face of a ro­bot could put them at ease. (Be­cause ro­bots aren’t peo­ple, so we don’t need to worry about what they think when we tell them the T-shirt they sug­gested is ab­so­lutely hideous.)

We are less likely to lie to ro­bots—and ro­bots are, for now, less likely to lie to us. This is a perk of trad­ing in flesh and blood for ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, but it could also present a prob­lem: How is Pep­per sup­posed to con­vince some­one they don’t look fat in a skirt if they can’t ex­ag­ger­ate the truth? Pep­per doesn’t dress him­self—he doesn’t even wear clothes. He might be able to read my emo­tions, but he’ll never know what it’s like to try on a dozen out­fits each morn­ing or squeeze into a pair of two-sizestoo-small skinny jeans.

The fu­ture of re­tail needs to merge phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal, yes, but does that re­ally mean I will be ex­pected to take fash­ion ad­vice from a naked piece of metal that can’t clothe it­self? I’m will­ing to let ro­bots grab my sizes, point me to­ward the sale sec­tion and keep me up to speed with the trends of the sea­son, but I’ll leave my styling ad­vice to warm-bod­ied pros. But if (and when) Pep­per starts pulling up his own pair of pants, I’ll re­con­sider.

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