‘Automation is in a tailspin’: How the pandemic has disrupted AI’s ability to understand us

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When covid-19 hit, we started buying things we’d never bought before. The shift was sudden: the mainstays of Amazon’s top ten—phone cases, phone chargers, Lego—were knocked off the charts in just a few days. Nozzle, a London-based consultancy specializing in algorithmic advertising for Amazon sellers, captured the rapid change in this simple graph.

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But they have also affected artificial intelligence, causing hiccups for the algorithms that run behind the scenes in inventory management, fraud detection, marketing, and more. Machine-learning models trained on normal human behavior are now finding that normal has changed, and some are no longer working as they should. 

According to Pactera Edge, a global AI consultancy, “automation is in tailspin.” Others say they are keeping a cautious eye on automated systems that are just about holding up, stepping in with a manual correction when needed.

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What’s clear is that the pandemic has revealed how intertwined our lives are with AI, exposing a delicate codependence in which changes to our behavior change how AI works, and changes to how AI works change our behavior. This is also a reminder that human involvement in automated systems remains key. “You can never sit and forget when you’re in such extraordinary circumstances,” says [Nozzle CEO Rael] Cline.

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