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Apr 14, 2022

Artificial Intelligence, an Ally to Overconsumption?

by Hugues Foltz Executive vice-president

Cloud, Technology, Artificial intelligence

We are finally on the brink of Christmas, a period of gatherings with friends and family that normally evokes sharing, rejoicing and festivities.

For many, however, the holiday season rhymes with shopping and discounts—to a point where there are now official days dedicated to this mass consumption, and their number is constantly increasing. Black Fridays, Cyber Mondays and Boxing Days are all occasions to scour the internet in search of the best deals, each more enticing than the next.

Moreover, in-store sales have drastically declined compared to 2019, before the pandemic. But don’t be deceived: our consumption is at an all-time high, and online sales worldwide have known an increase of 45% in the past year only! Our inboxes and social networks are overrun with promotions, and few of us manage to resist the temptation.

You might not be surprised to learn that artificial intelligence has a big role to play in the disproportionate growth in internet sales, but also in the disheartening trend of overconsumption. And yet, do you really understand the technology behind online sales? Do you grasp the extent of the mechanisms that drive us to compulsively buy stuff? This well-oiled machine of targeted advertising is only made possible thanks to the many artificial intelligence algorithms that use our personal data to analyze and profile us, and then offer us tailored content!

AI and data are extremely powerful weapons, and the Web Giants understood it long ago. Amazon, for example, has mastered the art of predicting consumer habits and has turned the situation to its advantage. In another article of mine, I discussed the omnipresence of virtual assistants in our daily lives. Amazon is no exception to the rule with Alexa, which constantly analyzes us in order to understand what we like and offer us content adapted to our every need and desire.

You can therefore imagine the amount of data that is being collected and used to train algorithms capable of predicting your purchases and offering you the best deals.

To give you an idea, last year, over 35% of Amazon’s total sales have come from recommendations made to buyers. Knowing that, do you still think that we only buy what we truly need?

And it’s far from being over. In fact, three new gadgets have recently been released on the market: Astro, a robot that follows you around the house, Ring Always Home, a small surveillance drone that acts as a security system, and Glow, an interactive projector for children. Equipped with cameras and microphones, all three products accumulate information about you and your family.
Can you see where it’s going? In 2013, Amazon filed for an “Anticipatory Shipping” patent, which gives them the ability to ship goods to you before you’ve even ordered them. If you don’t want the package, you let Amazon know and return it. On the other hand, if their prediction was correct and you decide to keep it, you will automatically be charged. The project is still in development, but it could very well revolutionize the consumer habits of tomorrow.  
And yet, Amazon is only one part of this vast ecosystem that has been rocking the retail industry as we knew it. Companies of all kinds continue to accumulate, refine, and above all use your personal data to predict their sales.
In a way, we have become part of a system much larger than ourselves. It is therefore more crucial than ever to be aware of artificial intelligence’s power, in part to rethink our consumption habits, but also to find lasting solutions that will positively impact society.
AI is without a doubt a magnificent technology with the power to accomplish great deeds. While sometimes misused, it can also be the basis of cutting-edge technological advances that contribute to our planet’s health, such as reducing GHGs and managing waste. I invite you to read some of my other articles on AI and its positive effects on the environment.
In hindsight, I suggest you take advantage of the holidays to recharge your batteries, take some distance from technologies and question yourself on the reasons that motivate your purchases… Is the content of your cart the result of numerous recommendations made by algorithms that know you all too well? To help you see things more clearly, why not ask yourself this good old question: Do I really need it?