Why It’s Impossible To Steal From An Amazon Go Supermarket

Amazon Go is the supermarket of the future, at least according to Jeff Bezos, founder of the world’s leading online retail store, Amazon.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit one of the Amazon Go supermarkets and I asked myself the same question many people have asked the founders: How can a store function without cashiers? How do you pay, and how does the business know who’s buying and who is stealing?

The idea of Amazon Go was born as a grocery store, sweets, drinks and various items in which you can enter, take things from the shelves, put them in your pockets, backpack or bag, and leave the store without having to stand in line, paying with your ATM card or even touching the money you carry in your wallet.

Everything is automated. It’s as simple as taking that soda that you want to drink and a bag of chips, and leaving the store. The system will do everything for you: it will charge you and send you your invoice by mail like any Amazon purchase.

Photo: Paul (Naijaroko)

“It’s an idea too good to be real,” I thought as I approached the store located on 5th & Marion St. in the city of Seattle, birthplace of Amazon. But when I left the supermarket, about 8 minutes later, I realized that everything works as promised. The only reason I took so long in the store was because I tried to cheat the system, but I failed.

Before making use of the supermarket, you have to download the store’s app on your smartphone, and log in with your Amazon account as always.

Once you’re done, the app will show you a QR code that will be your “access key”.

When entering the store, the first thing you have to do is scan the QR code on the scanner near the door. In my case I was not alone, I was accompanied by a friend Jeff from AmTech, and that was no problem. If you are accompanied, you can use your same QR code to let people who are with you enter. The system will know, without errors, that everything they take should be charged to your account.

And the precision with which it works is impressive. If you take a can of Red Bull, the app will add it to the shopping cart. When my friend took something, it also added it to my shopping list, regardless of whether he was in another end of the store, far away from me. Jeff wanted to take a souvenir mug from the store, but he hesitated whether to buy it or not. He took it and returned it to the shelf a couple of times, and the system knew whether to charge me or not. If it detects that you regretted collecting an item, you will not be charged anything that does not leave the store with you.

How did it know what I was doing, and the things we took from the store? The answer, or part of it, is in the next image.

Photo: Paul (Naijaroko)

Looking up I found dozens of sensors and cameras, which uses a system based on computer vision and deep learning (or automated learning) to recognize patterns and check everything you take and what you return. The system, supposedly, does not use facial recognition, but it must use some biometric technique to recognize everything that you and those who are with you take.

Anyway, I wondered how reliable this system would be, and if I could fool it. Well trying to steal, of course. Some of my tests consisted in trying to obstruct the vision of the cameras and sensors, or remove objects from the end of the shelf, cover them with my hand and then put it back in the shelf, although then I did, to see if it charged me. I also put my hand at the end of the shelf of some jelly beans that I wanted to take and it noticed my action. The shelves had internal sensors, in addition to the ceiling, including weight sensors that will prevent you from doing something like taking that Red Bull can, drink the content and put it back on the shelf so that the app does not charge you. It wouldn’t work.

In the end, the sensors detected all the objects that we took out of the store, and a couple of minutes later I received the invoice in the app and in my email. Everything was incredibly easy, fast and it made me think about the possibility of someday seeing this in African countries, in Nigeria or even in more cities in the United States.

Photo: Paul (Naijaroko)

But the reality is that it is difficult to implement something like that and it requires a mentality that does not involve asking questions like the ones I asked myself when entering this store for the first time. Amazon says that these establishments are designed based on an “honor system”, which implies that they do not expect people to want to steal. If you do, nothing would stop you from simply jumping the barrier at the entrance, why use the QR code if what you plan to do is steal?

That is why it will take a long time before the supermarket of the future reaches our neighborhoods, and that is why even in Seattle, the cradle of Amazon, they have dared to sell more than sweets, food and drinks. Kindles, Echos and smartphones are more secure in their stores, at least not for now.