Google wants to inject a little generative AI into retail. Or to try, at least.
To coincide with the National Retailer Association’s annual conference in NYC, Google Cloud today unveiled new gen AI products designed to help retailers personalize their online shopping experiences and streamline their back-office operations.
As to whether they perform as advertised, this writer can’t say — TechCrunch wasn’t given the chance to test the new tools prior to this morning’s unveiling. (They’re set to launch sometime in Q1.) But the slew of announcements show, if nothing else, how aggressively Google is attempting to court gen AI customers.
One of Google Cloud’s new products, Conversational Commerce Solution, lets retailers embed gen AI-powered agents on their websites and mobile apps — sort of like a brand-specific ChatGPT. The agents have conversations with shoppers in natural language, tailored product suggestions based on shoppers’ individual preferences.
Branded chatbots are hardly new. But Google says that “sophisticated” models like PaLM are powering the agents, which can be fine-tuned and customized with retailers’ own data (e.g. catalogs and websites).
Complementing Conversational Commerce Solution is Google Cloud’s new Catalog and Content Enrichment toolset, which taps gen AI models including the aforementioned PaLM and Imagen to automatically generate product descriptions, metadata, categorization suggestions and more from as little as a single product photo. The toolset also let retailers generate new product images from existing ones, or to use product descriptions as the basis for AI-generated photos of products.
Now, when eBay launched a similar AI-powered product-image-to-description capability a few months back, it didn’t take long before sellers began complaining about its performance — pointing to misleading, unnecessarily repetitive and in some cases downright untruthful text.
I asked Amy Eschliman, managing director of retail at Google Cloud, what steps Google’s taken, if any, to address concerns around such hallucinations. She didn’t point to specific measures but stressed that Google’s “continuously improving” its tools and that human review is a core part of the Catalog and Content Enrichment workflows.
I’d certainly hope there’s human review where the stakes are high. It’s not inconceivable, after all, that a misleading AI-generated image or description in a product catalog could land a retailer in hot water with shoppers — or on the receiving end of false advertising allegations.
“Human-in-the-loop is a best practice that helps with enterprise use cases to ensure high quality, mitigate bias-related risk, improve trust and transparency, improve and continually train the model, while complying with regulatory and business policy,” Eschliman said.
In a related announcement today, Google took the wraps off of a retail-specific Distributed Cloud Edge device, a managed self-contained hardware kit to “reduce IT costs and resource investments” around retail gen AI. (Google’s long offered Distributed Cloud Edge as a service, but it’s now targeting retailers more directly.) Available in a range of sizes from single-server to multi-server configurations, Google says that the edge cluster is designed to fit into stores from convenience marts and gas stations to fast casual restaurants and grocery stores — powering customers’ gen AI apps.
“With the … control plane running locally, Google Distributed Cloud Edge provides retailers non-stop operations even when their location is disconnected from the internet for short periods of time (days),” Eschliman said. “Retailers now have access to a small cluster of Google Cloud-managed nodes that can be conveniently installed in nearly any store. With this fully managed hardware and software, retailers can now run existing software with distributed AI to enable mission-critical operations in the store at all times.”
Google says that pricing and availability info will be released in Q1.
My question after being pre-briefed on all this was, frankly, are retailers really clamoring for gen AI?
Perhaps. At least the giants of retail.
Walmart yesterday announced that it’s investing heavily in gen AI search to better understand the context of queries and let shoppers search by specific use cases (e.g. “unicorn-themed toddler birthday party”). Amazon, meanwhile, has been leveraging gen AI to summarize customer reviews, help sellers write product descriptions and image captions and better enable buyers to find clothes that fit their size.
In a poll Google conducted, Google says that 81% of retail decision makers feel “urgency” to adopt gen AI in their business while 72% feel ready to deploy gen AI technology today — specifically in the areas of customer service automation, marketing support and product description generation, creative assistance, conversational commerce and store associate knowledge and support.
But considering some of the rocky rollouts of gen AI in retail recently (see: Amazon’s review summaries exaggerating negative feedback), I can’t say I’m convinced that the retail industry will rush to adopt gen AI en masse — from Google Cloud or any other provider. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.