In January, my employee received a strange email. The message she forwarded to me came from a handful of Walmart employees who described themselves as "Concerned Home Office Associates". (Walmart's Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters is often referred to as a home office.) While it is not uncommon for journalists to receive anonymous tips, they are usually not delivered with their own nifty videos.
Employees said that Everseen, a small artificial intelligence company based in Cork, Ireland, has been using Walmart technology since 2017. But workers claimed that they misidentified harmless behavior as theft and often failed to stop actual cases of theft.
They said to WIRED that they were dismayed that their employer – one of the largest retailers in the world – was relying on AI that they believed was flawed. A staff member said the technology was sometimes referred to as “NeverSeen” internally due to its common mistakes. WIRED granted anonymity to the employees because they are not authorized to speak to the press.
Workers said they had been upset about Walmart's use of Everseen for years and claimed that colleagues had raised concerns about the technology with managers, but were dismissed. They decided to speak to the press after publicizing Walmart's partnership with Everseen for the first time in a June 2019 Business Insider article. The story has described how Everseen uses AI to analyze footage from surveillance cameras installed on the ceiling and detect problems in real time, such as: B. when a customer puts an article in his pocket without scanning it. When the system detects something, it automatically notifies the store employees.
“Everseen overcomes human limits. With the use of the latest artificial intelligence, computer vision systems and big data, we can identify abnormal activities and other threats, ”explains a promotional video that is referenced in the story. "Our digital eye has a perfect view and does not need a day off."
To refute the claims made in the Business Insider article, the Concerned Home Office Associates created a video to show that Everseen technology does not flag articles that have not been scanned in three different Walmart stores. With happy elevator music, one person starts self-checkout to buy two jumbo packages with Reese's White Peanut Butter Cups. Since the packages are stacked on top of each other, only one is scanned, but both are successfully placed in the packaging area without any problems.
The same person then grabs two gallons of milk by the handles and moves them over the scanner with one hand. Only one is called, but both are placed in the bagging area. Then they put their own cell phone on the computer and a warning appears that they have to wait for help – a false positive. "Everseen is finally warning! But wrongly does that. Oops again, “it says in a heading. The filmmaker repeats the same process in two other stores, where he does not scan a heart-shaped Valentine's Day chocolate box with a puppy on the front and an electric Philips Sonicare toothbrush. At the end, a caption explains that Everseen has failed to stop more than $ 100 in potential theft.
The video is not definitive evidence that Everseen's technology is not working as well as advertised, but its existence speaks for the frustration of the group of anonymous Walmart employees and the effort they have made to prove their objection justified were.
In interviews, employees whose roles include knowledge of Walmart's loss prevention programs said that their main concern with Everseen was false positive self-checkout results. Employees believe that technology often misinterprets innocent behavior as potential shoplifting, which frustrates customers and business partners and leads to longer queues. "It's like a loud technology, a fake AI that only pretends to protect," said one worker.
The coronavirus pandemic has made their concerns more pressing. An affected Ministry of Interior official said he feared that false positive results could result in Walmart employees unnecessarily violating social distance guidelines. If Everseen reports a problem, a store employee needs to intervene and determine if shoplifting or any other problem is occurring. In an April WIRED internal statement, a Walmart manager at the company expressed great concern that the additional contact required by false alarms would put workers at risk and asked whether the Everseen system to protect customers and workers should be turned off.
Before COVID-19, "it wasn't ideal, it was a bad customer experience," said the worker. "AI is now creating a public health risk." (HuffPost reported last week that Walmart employees were concerned about Everseen's technology, which would jeopardize branch employees in the face of the pandemic.)
Good for selling
When COVID-19 reached the United States, the Americans hurried to get food and household items from Walmart and sales increased. The workers soon got sick; According to United for Respect, a nonprofit that works for retail workers and crowdsourcing COVID-19 infection rates and working conditions in Walmart stores across the country, at least 20 Walmart employees have died after being infected with the coronavirus. Last month, United for Respect said hundreds of Walmart employees took part in a national strike that called for safer working conditions and better performance.
A spokesman for Walmart said the company has worked diligently to protect customers and its workforce, and believes the rate at which employees have contracted COVID-19 is lower than that of the general U.S. population. They denied that false alarms caused by Everseen were a common problem and said the company had not considered turning the system off due to concerns about COVID-19.
"We regularly evaluate our technology and as Everseen's extensive implementation across the chain shows, we are confident that it currently meets our standards," the spokesman said in an email. Shortly before the pandemic started, Walmart announced that the Everseen system had been significantly improved, resulting in fewer warnings overall. The spokesman declined to answer questions about the possible updates.
The spokesman also noted that there are several reasons why an employee could intervene during a self checkout transaction, such as when a customer has credit card issues. The company has taken a number of steps to ensure that people are protected during these interactions, including cleaning the self-checkout kiosks on a regular basis and providing protective equipment to employees. In addition, employees receive handheld devices that allow them to perform most of the operations remotely, the company said.
Everseen declined to answer questions about his technology. In a statement, a spokesman said that the company "identifies potential theft (sic) accurately and effectively, which is why retailers have successfully deployed it in thousands of locations and many more installations are planned." They added that Everseen usually only accounts for less than 10 percent of all interventions at self-service checkouts. In a separate statement, the spokesman said: “Everseen strives to help its customers, customers and business partners get the best possible experience, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Self checkout offers the benefits of a generally non-contact shopping experience that allows for adequate social distance and avoids manned streets in busy shops with limited staff. "
But the home office workers concerned said their concerns about Everseen were long before the pandemic. Emails received from WIRED show that other employees of the company had problems with theft prevention technology in both 2017 and 2018. Employees were particularly annoyed with Walmart's continued investment in Everseen, as NCR Corporation, which created the majority of the Walmart registers, acquired an Everseen competitor named StopLift. They viewed the acquisition as confirmation and were confused as to why StopLift's technology had not been further investigated.
In addition, employees said that Walmart's internal research and development group, the Intelligent Retail Lab (IRL), had developed their own anti-theft software, which they believed was more accurate than Everseen's. A Walmart employee said the technology, the existence of which was previously reported by the Wall Street Journal, is currently being tested in around 50 stores.
Walmart declined to answer questions about its internal anti-theft software, but did not contest WIRED's reporting. "At the corporate level, a series of tests are taking place on our space of nearly 5,000 branches at all times," said a spokesman in a statement. “The goal of IRL is to build AI functions that can be transferred to additional businesses. We regularly test functions that were created internally in a small number of branches. "
Everseen's technology was partially developed to solve a persistent self checkout problem. The ability for customers to scan and pay for their own items lowers retail labor costs, but leads to increased inventory loss or "shrinkage" due to shoplifting, employee theft, and other issues. "Theft through self-checkout alleys is exponentially higher than through conventional checkout alleys," said Christopher Andrews, sociology professor at Drew University and author of The Overworked Consumer: self-checkout, supermarkets, and do-it-yourself businesses.
In the past, Walmart and other retailers relied on weight sensors to prevent shoplifting through self-checkouts. However, these were prone to errors and frustrated customers. Some stores are now turning to companies like Everseen, which promise to reduce shrinkage and increase customer satisfaction by relying on surveillance cameras and image processing instead. Everseen has said it works with a number of large retailers. Amazon uses similar technology in its Amazon Go convenience stores, where a network of cameras automatically logs the products customers take. (Amazon is now licensing its Just Walk Out technology to other companies.)
Value of the self checkout
During the corona virus pandemic and its aftermath, self-checkout for stores can become even more important as customers look for low-risk shopping. The NCR company announced that it is now helping retailers make their devices as touchless as possible, for example by reconfiguring machines so customers can insert a debit or credit card without having to press the "credit card" payment option. "It's fascinating to see that self-checkout can be used as a public health strategy alongside cashless payments," said Alexandra Mateescu, a researcher at Data & Society, a nonprofit institute who wrote about the impact of new technology on healthcare retailers .
"Self checkout is just one of the ways we offer our customers solutions to securely get the items they need during this time, in addition to other options such as delivery, pickup, contactless payment at checkout, and online shopping," he said the Walmart spokesman said in a statement. "Customers continue to use this option and we will continue to work hard to ensure that the store experience is safe, affordable and convenient for our customers and safe for our employees."
This story originally appeared on wired.com.