AI is taking frictionless shopping to new extremes
“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.”