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Has AI Got Covid-19?

For every development in technology that brings us closer to the 3D computers that they use in Minority Report and Star Trek, there is a reminder that as clever as Artificial Intelligence is, it is still artificial. So, has AI got Covid-19?

Coronavirus and Amazon

Before Coronavirus took hold in the US and across Europe, we used Amazon to get things we didn’t get in the shops, whether it was because it was cheaper or the convenience of one click and you’ve got the latest PS4 game at your door.

Then the panic buying started, toilet rolls, pasta, yeast, eggs, bread, hand soap were flying off the shelves quicker than they could be restocked.

Even those that were not stocking up on these ‘essential’ items were forced to travel far and wide in order to make sure their family had enough toilet roll for a week.

Combined with the spread of the message to work at home and stay at home, this meant that the usual top sellers from Amazon; Lego, video games, tech and books were surpassed by more mundane items.

“It took less than a week at the end of February for the top 10 Amazon search terms in multiple countries to fill up with products related to Covid-19.”

It did not take long for people to think, well if I can’t get any of this from my supermarkets I will see if Amazon sell it.

Especially when people pay for Amazon Prime and the very handy next day delivery.

Then Amazon found themselves in a tricky situation.

They found themselves struggling to keep up with this demand along with their regular demand for their usual best sellers.

While other companies were shutting doors, letting staff go and trying to figure out how to survive during this unprecedented situation, Amazon was doing better than ever before!

Something had to give, so they decided to stop the shipping of non-essential items to their warehouses.

Instead of looking for something desirable, people were looking for essential items that could be delivered.

There was a shift from what can we get to who can deliver it the quickest.

Some of the changes that Amazon made were so subtle that you may not have noticed.

Pre-Covid-19 if you searched for an item, especially a high demand item, then the search results would bring back items from Amazons own warehouse first, then somewhere down the list you would see third-party sellers.

Amazon was trying to get people to not buy products from their warehouses first, which seems incredible when you think about it.

So, if you searched for a Nintendo switch, you would see third party sellers first or near the top.


AI Didn’t Know What To Do

Much has been written about the incredible advances in machine learning, how algorithms are deciding what we are going to buy before we even wake up and the uncanny ability of Facebook Ads to show you something that Aunt Mabel mentioned on the phone when she was chatting to Gavin last week.

But all the patterns and human behaviour that machine learning knew went out the window.

Good as they are, you cannot just set up an AI program and walk away.

They do learn to change, but gradually and in small amounts.

AI is not programmed to deal with huge spikes in demand, streaming services that found their subscribers increasing by huge amounts found that their algorithms couldn’t work properly because of the huge influx of data.

Rajeev Sharma, the vice president of Pactera Edge suggested that AI needs to go back to school and study more:

“More AIs should be trained not just on the ups and downs of the last few years, but also on freak events like the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Black Monday stock market crash in 1987, and the 2007-2008 financial crisis. A pandemic like this is a perfect trigger to build better machine-learning models”

It will certainly be interesting to see how AI learns as we move through this pandemic and if there is a sudden change in buying and search behaviour again whether it will be able to look back and learn from 2020, the year of Covid-19.



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