I'm OK with  AI assistants giving us directions, telling us about the weather, and even letting us know about an upcoming movie or two. Amazon Alexa and Apple's Siri bot handle these chores just fine. Yet, there are a few things that, if they are automated too soon, they will probably cause more hassle and confusion that anything.

Case in point: the  Walmart Mobile Express lane.

In a recent announcement, Walmart noted how it will be possible to do a "self-return" in a specific lane at customer service. You'll process the return using an app, then scan a Qr code without having to wait in line. You'll hand the item to the clerk and that's it.

How could the idea possibly go wrong?

First, buying an item is nothing like returning it. Is the box damaged? Are all of the pieces there? Do you have a good reason for the return, other than--you bought it six months and ago and recently decided it wasn't the right color?

I'm a major proponent of automation when it makes sense, and incredulous when it comes to technology that is not quite there yet.

More importantly, there's the human touch. Returning items is slightly nerve-racking, mostly because we can't predict the outcome. What if we bought a $200 blender that doesn't work? We think it will require some explanation. Now, with an automated system and an app, we will process it digitally but when we hand the blender in eight pieces to a clerk, we'll likely have to explain it all anyway. (That it fell off the counter when the cat bumped it.)

In a statement Walmart told me they can't explain the details about how they will process returns in an automated way or deal with fraud. They said it is for competitive reasons. Yet, I could see this system being abused or easily creating confusion.

To make it work, there will have to be some machine learning. Today, POS systems are designed to process returns quickly using an automated system--in many stores, they can alert the customer service rep that someone has already tried to return the item.

Machine learning would go much further. AI could use cameras and other sensors at the register to detect whether an item matches the correct size and weight when it's placed on a pad. A camera could detect if the customer seems agitated. A chatbot could go through a series of quick questions with the customer and, judging from the responses, know whether to accept the return. If there are any anomalies, it could alert an employee.

Walmart likely doesn't have anything that advanced (yet). In fact, the return is only automated in terms of the transaction--the app will determine if the item can be returned within a specific date range, and the customer will have already configured it to use their credit card. When the customer hands the item to a clerk, the clerk can verify that everything is in order. but that's always the time-consuming part.

My guess is that automated returns will be a pain. They will likely rely on the app for the automation, and then if there is a problem, you'll have to deal with the clerk anyway. Setting up the app, doing the return and going to the store will add some tedium. It might mean you won't wait in line as long but, in the end, it's going to need a lot more AI.

Published on: Oct 13, 2017