by Mary Harrington
Monday, 12
July 2021
Dark Web
15:00

Big Tech wants to read your mind

AI is taking frictionless shopping to new extremes
by Mary Harrington
Credit: Getty

“What if you could buy anything with just a text?” asks a tech entrepreneur. Well, now you can.

Friday’ is an AI-powered conversational search and shopping tool, which responds to text prompts from you. It then scours Amazon on your behalf before selecting and seamlessly purchasing whatever it is you wanted. It’s powered by GPT-3, or Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 3, an AI language model that uses deep learning to produce human-like text. Created by OpenAI in San Francisco and launched last year, GPT-3 scrapes nearly everything on the internet, some 175 billion language inputs, for its in-context language learning. Its creators report that GPT-3 has shown in tests to be capable of creating text that’s barely distinguishable from that produced by humans.

I wrote a little while ago about 00s anti-capitalists who protested the arrival of Starbucks, instinctively grasping that there was something sinister about it: the allure and the hidden costs of the ‘frictionless’ lifestyle. Namely, that ‘beneath the chummy Starbucks aesthetic was a paper-thin veneer for a rapacious form of capitalism indifferent to local texture’. Two decades on, Starbucks is everywhere and ‘frictionlessness’ is the defining feature of much tech innovation. ‘Friday’ shows that for the leading edge of this transformation, even the minuscule effort of entering search terms and payment details is too much.

Substituting real-world shops (now closing at a rate of knots, accelerated by Covid) with online ones didn’t make things frictionless enough. Replacing multiple shopping websites with Amazon (whose founder Jeff Bezos, is now the richest man in history) still left the tiresome friction of having to search and choose. To ease even that microscopic rub, Friday offers a level of AI automation between us and Amazon to ease the exhausting effort of entering a search term and choosing a product. We must infer that the ultimate goal is perfect unity between the moment of desire and the moment of gratification.

What’s less clear from the chirpy promotion is how this model sharpens a range of new power laws introduced by frictionless shopping. These include un-unionised gig-economy fulfilment workers in warehouses, and delivery drivers in vans, peeing in bottles to meet their productivity targets so your purchases arrive swiftly and frictionlessly. Meanwhile, small businesses are locked out of e-commerce by market concentration. Or, indeed, the relationship shoppers might once have had with the proprietors of a real-world business.

It speaks volumes, though, that Friday’s signup page doesn’t even tell you which retailers will be scoured to satisfy your every whim. True believers in frictionlessness are willing to relinquish any insight into the material conditions, and power relations, that underpin a commercial transaction.

The payoff for this studied indifference is another step toward the purest possible unity of desire and purchase. The convergence, if you will, of shopping and prayer. “Just think, and receive.”

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Saul D
Saul D
1 year ago

Frictionless tends to mean not being aware of what you’re spending. Money disappears from view – a set of numbers in an online bank account that get spent without being touched. Like the seamless extras in a mini-bar in a five-star hotel, or the monthly subscription to a gym that is no longer used, or PAYE, or scan-and-go terminals: money becomes virtualised and abstract – you don’t know you had it to worry about what you’ve spent it on.
So the technology doesn’t want to read your mind to know what you want to buy, it wants to direct you as to what to buy, where it, rather than you, makes the decision as to what goes in your basket. So much easier if it, rather than you, makes the choice, like doctors in an American hospital.
It sells you services through ‘dark patterns’ and unwanted upgrades. The worst of which is Amazon Prime – a weird subscription-based delivery, film, music, book package where the price keeps cranking up. And because it’s all virtualised no-one notices that a ‘free’ delivery service with a bit of TV is skimming the equivalent of $20 a month off your credit card. No-one cares because they never saw the money in the first place.

Robert Hochbaum
Robert Hochbaum
1 year ago

This isn’t quite the same thing but I have found using music streaming ‘services’ very frustrating. The AI that is always making ‘suggestions based on your listening’ eventually has me yelling at my phone in frustration as I cycle through a bunch of stuff I really don’t like and then I delete whatever app I happen to be trying. I’m not looking forward to the future where everything is AI driven and trying to make my life frictionless. I like a little friction.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

I refuse to talk to robots on the phone, and it is Very hard to do it now, I just keep punching random strings of numbers or make unintelligible sounds till finally a human cones on – or NOT. There is sufficient money in the economy for humans to be employed in this.

As I refuse to own any kind of cell phone I have massive problems as I cannot get texts, and everything wants to text you as ID, (I do all my finance on line, and as cookies and trackers are wiped clean, and my own computer does not know anything of me, it is a process to log onto anything at all). I tried to get a on a University Dental School program to get a tooth implant and was accepted, but then they let me go when I told them I do not have a cell phone as they require one for scheduling!
I clean my computer of trackers every time I shut the browser, I use small search engines, NEVER am online without a VPN, My computer is not allowed to know a single site I use, nor a password, not e-mails or anything, I keen it as blank a slate as I can – I so hate this modern watching of everyone.

What is wrong with people now days? That they go along with this dehumanizing and tracking of everything?

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

Great article. Really well written.
I had never heard of ‘Friday’ until now.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It has heard of you, it knows what tooth paste you use.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
1 year ago

In addition to Dune, Frank Herbert also wrote of BuSab, the Bureau of Sabotage, which exists to slow down Government. I’m starting to think that we need one, but aimed at Business and Industry.

Jacob Mason
Jacob Mason
1 year ago

I appreciate the tenor and warning of this article.

I might add, however, that there is a genuine mercantile problem which does need resolution – the array of choices is now too vast for a consumer to wade through.

While I am somewhat loathe to see Amazon become THE online marketplace, in terms of actually making shopping manageable, I am not sure if there is a good alternative.

I foresee a future in which certain types of online services are increasingly treated as utilities, marketplaces being among them…

Last edited 1 year ago by Jacob Mason
Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago

Interesting that a txt generator can help us shop. Amazon search has numerous flaws but instead of getting better over time it seems to be getting worse. It totally misses some product but presents others as if it can’t quite understand the query. But perhaps the presentation might generate marginal sales. I often must use external searches to arrive back at Amazon but often find my needed item elsewhere but needing to see the shipping (hidden) cost. But on-line often is preferable to in-store where I wander around trying to figure out where my item might be located.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

Drivers peeing in bottles is hardly some employment crime. In my work in construction I had many a very dangerous jobs where one worked in such discomfort and stress is would be hellish. Running wiring in factory ceilings over equipment in 110F+ heat wile on very precarious ladders and hanging off equipment – this I did a lot. Working 13 hours a day at HARD work in great discomfort and with danger was my Normal for many years. Injuries were not ‘If, but When, and I had many of them, from broken bones to torn muscles and connective tissues, to massive electrical hits, falls, you name it – it is what men used to do to make a living – and some still do – even I do, but now part time as I am mid 60s, but I still get on that precarious roof 20 foot in the air and fix it, or framing with heavy lumber 30 foot in the air…

“Substituting real-world shops (now closing at a rate of knots, accelerated by Covid)”

This Plandemic lock down, 30 Trillion $ fiscal and monetary printing, stopping actual GDP to replace it with DEBT, this closing schools, this Project Fear, this masking, shutting the Medical to citizens wile paying trillions to the exceedingly corrupt Medical Industrial Complex – this social breakdown piggy-backing off the social breakdown of Lockdown – THIS IS ALL PLANNED to create the New World Order.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

It sounds as if you were a pretty poor tradesman, if that’s the way you went about your day you were clearly a danger to yourself and others. I’d imagine most lads on site were glad to see the back of you

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

“I’d imagine most lads on site were glad to see the back of you”

I know your kind, the one wearing the high-viz vest, the hard hat, safety glasses, the drop harness, steel toed boots, flame proof clothing, leather gloves, hearing protection, all electrical on ‘Lock Out’, just to get into the bucket of a man lift to change a light bulb.
I have almost always worked self employed. When I did industrial wiring (years of it) I was an employee of a sub contractor doing piece work in retrofits while the industrial plants were in operation. I had to work in facilities which were full of equipment and almost everything I did was high up. It was real work – I was paid by the job and made good money because I kicked out huge amounts of work – by HARD work.
The other construction I mostly have done, a very great deal, is wood frame construction where I build an entire house with one helper. I do it all, and do not hire lifts, do it off ladders and temp, wood scaffold, and just get it done.
Your sort can only work employed by some big company as you likely get little done, I get a great deal done, I know your sort, and am glad to see the back of your ilk too.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

That’s quite a hero complex you have there I must say. Essentially you took on the jobs no self respecting tradesman would get out of bed for by the sounds of it.
If you’re willing to risk your life for a few pieces of silver that’s up to you. Personally my life and that of the lads I’ve had work for me is worth much more than shaving an hour off the job.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Oh, well, if thats how you live my guess is you sat home the last 15 months, wear a mask everywhere but in the shower, get $ for not working, refuse to send the children to school, left your old folks alone for over a year……………. You, know, Safety First, even if it is uneconomical….

My life has been one of high risk since I left school and hit the road. I drifted around doing odd things till 41, and on my birthday found I was living in a camp in the far North wilderness, broke, and could not face old age without money – so I moved to a city, worked construction 80+, yes eighty hours+ a week, for 5.5 years and made a load of money. I caught up – and I did it by doing hard work! Piece work. I was out to catch up for my years of not working much – I had just under $400,000 in the bank after I sold the last house (which I was buying and fixing 40 hours a week), and in the ceilings of industry pulling HOT wire 40+ hours a week.,.,..

You are nothing like me, you are a normal, and thus totally risk adverse – your country will wreck the lives of your young because you ‘adults’ are such scared mice…

I never mask, I will not vax, I am not you, and my guess is your chicken sorts will have destroyed the global economy you are so afraid of everything.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

PS, I apologize to Unherd Moderators and readers for my posts above… my bad attitude is why I dropped out of school and hit the road and mostly wasted my life,

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I don’t think you wasted your life, it was pretty much the life my dad had, and that wasn’t a waste, although he didn’t want it for his children, and we both loved him for that.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

So I was correct, you’re a labourer. Electricians don’t put up stud walls, and carpenters don’t play with wires. The electrician hired you because he didn’t want to spend his day pulling cables through, presumably the chippies had you knocking walls together while they did the finishing work.
Whilst you seem to have done ok for yourself if your story is to be believed, though I’d question where the foreman was on any of these jobs you’ve mentioned, it shows the difference between the economy then and now.
I work with young lads who have done their time, fully qualified tradesmen and have been working since they were 16, unable to afford a house coming up towards their 30’s, yet you were able to swan about into your 40’s and get onto the ladder on a labourers wage.