New & Noteworthy

Technology VS. Humans

With so much technology in the retail world today and life in general, one can often come across articles that will compare humans to technology.

Sometimes all it comes down to is, does the customer want to take the time to think about doing something or allowing an employee in the store to do most of the work?

What is the quickest or easiest?

Can the customer complete the needs alone or do they need assistance?

But yet sometimes the customer just wants some interaction with a human during the process.

The article to follow brings up some interesting comments.



Humans 1, Robots 0

Cashiers Trump Self-Checkout Machines at the Grocery


[image] Bloomberg News

Self-checkout machines at groceries need a lot of human

Computers seem to be replacing humans across
many industries, and we’re all getting very nervous.

But if you want some reason for optimism, visit your
local supermarket. See that self-checkout machine? It doesn’t hold a candle to
the humans—and its deficiencies neatly illustrate the limits of computers’
abilities to mimic human skills.

The human supermarket checker is superior to the
self-checkout machine in almost every way. The human is faster. The human has a
more pleasing, less buggy interface. The human doesn’t expect me to remember or
look up codes for produce, she bags my groceries, and unlike the machine, she
isn’t on hair-trigger alert for any sign that I might be trying to steal toilet
paper. Best of all, the human does all the work while I’m allowed to stand there
and stupidly stare at my phone, which is my natural state of being.

There is only one problem with human checkers:
They’re in short supply. At my neighborhood big-box suburban supermarket, the
lines for human checkers are often three or four deep, while the self-checkout
queue is usually sparse. Customers who are new to self-checkout might take their
short lines to mean that the machines are more efficient than the humans, but
that would be a gross misunderstanding.

As far as I can tell, the self-checkout lines are short
only because the machines aren’t very good.

They work well enough in a pinch—when you want to check
out just a handful of items, when you don’t have much produce, when you aren’t
loaded down with coupons.
But for any standard order, they’re a big pain. Perversely, then, self-checkout
machines’ shortcomings are their best feature: because they’re useless for most
orders, their lines are shorter, making the machines seem faster than

In most instances where I’m presented with a machine
instead of a human, I rejoice. I prefer an ATM to a flesh-and-blood banker, and
I find airport check-in machines more efficient than the unsmiling guy at the
desk. But both these tasks—along with more routine computerized skills like
robotic assembly lines—share a common feature: They’re very narrow, specific,
repeatable problems, ones that require little physical labor and not much
cognitive flexibility.

Supermarket checkout—a low-wage job that doesn’t require
much training—sounds like it should be similarly vulnerable to robotic invasion.
But it turns out that checking out groceries requires just enough
mental-processing skills to be a prohibitive challenge for computers. In that
way, supermarket checkout represents a class of jobs
that computers can’t yet match because, for now, they’re just not very good
substituting key human abilities.

What’s so cognitively demanding about supermarket
checkout? I spoke to several former checkout people, and they all pointed to the
same skill: Identifying fruits and vegetables. Some supermarket produce is
tagged with small stickers carrying product-lookup codes, but a lot of stuff
isn’t. It’s the human checker’s job to tell the difference between green leaf
lettuce and green bell peppers, and then to remember the proper code.

“It took me about three or four weeks to get to the
point where I wouldn’t have to look up most items that came by,” said Sam Orme,
a 30-year-old grad student who worked as a checker when he was a teenager.

Another one-time checker, Ken Haskell, explained that
even after months of doing the job, he would often get stumped. “Every once in a
while I’d get a papaya or a mango and I’d have to reach for the book,” he

In a recent research paper called “Dancing With Robots,”
the economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane point out that computers replace
human workers only when machines meet two key conditions. First, the information
necessary to carry out the task must be put in a form that computers can
understand, and second, the job must be routine enough that it can be expressed
in a series of rules.

Supermarket checkout machines meet the second of these
conditions, but they fail on the first. They lack proper information to do the
job a human would do. To put it another way: They can’t tell shiitakes from
Shinola. Instead of identifying your produce, the machine asks you, the
customer, to type in a code for every leafy green in your cart. Many times
you’ll have to look up the code in an on-screen directory. If a human checker
asked you to remind him what that bunch of the oblong yellow fruit in your
basket was, you’d ask to see his boss.

This deficiency extends far beyond the checkout

“In the ’60s people assumed you’d be reading X-rays and
CT scans by computers within years,” Mr. Levy said. “But it’s nowhere near
anything like that. You have certain computerized enhancements for simple images, but nothing like
a real CT scan can be read by a computer—and the same thing would be true trying
to separate arugula from everything else.”

You could imagine certain ways to make the
identification process easier for supermarket computers. For example, we could
tag every produce item with an electronic identification tag. But that would be
an enormous infrastructural challenge for a dubious return.

A representative for NCR, the world’s largest
self-checkout vendor, pointed me to a company-sponsored survey that shows that customers believe
self-checkout systems are faster than cashier lanes. But I doubt those
perceptions. When you actually watch self-checkout lanes matched up against
cashiers, the cashiers come out significantly faster—read this Ph.D. thesis for proof, or go to your local store and
marvel at how speedy the humans are.

Can computers beat them? Perhaps one day, but I doubt it
will be soon. And that gets to the other issue: Unless the store gives me an
explicit price break for scanning my stuff, why, exactly, should I be rejoicing
about doing more work?

—High Definition is a twice-weekly
column about technology issues, people and companies.

Write to Farhad Manjoo at

A version of this article appeared
October 6, 2013, on page B4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with
the headline: Cashiers 1, Robots 0.

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