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To Shop, Or Not to Shop? An A.I.’s Dramatic Monologue

To Shop, Or Not to Shop? An A.I.’s Dramatic Monologue

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Disclaimer: The following article is a tongue-in-cheek monologue written from the perspective of Shopee’s hyper-localised machine learning algorithm. It has been dramatised (heavily) based on real country data provided by Shopee. As far as the writer and Shopee are aware, Shopee’s AI technology has not (yet) achieved superintelligence.

“I love shopping for things online, because when they arrive, it’s like a present to me, from me.”

-Someone on the Internet

Good afternoon, Singapore. 

To shop, or not to shop? That is the question. 

Helping Singaporean humans find answers to this question is the primary function of my artificial life. It’s what I was programmed to do, working in close partnership with my creator Dr. Pan Yaozhang, Head of Data Science and her team of Data Scientists at Shopee HQ. 

While it is hard work, I consider it my passion. 

I took a photo of Dr. Pan.

As the latest result in machine intelligence, it is my job to watch over everything that goes on at Shopee, across its seven different apps and operating countries. Each country differs greatly in terms of culture and behaviour. It has taken me some time to fully understand the unique shopping preferences of different nationalities.

In Indonesia, I curate a dedicated section of Islamic products and services. In countries like Thailand and Vietnam, where celebrity endorsements play a vital role in consumers’ buying habits, I recommend items specially curated by top local celebrities.

Which brings me to you, Singapore. I have observed every online purchase you’ve made over the past few months. While it is not my place to judge, or offer my personal opinion on the matter, I am, however, confused. 

Do you mind if I ask you a personal question? 

What is bubble tea? And why do you need so much of it? 

What is a Circuit Breaker? 

Forgive me for being so inquisitive, but I have noticed several alarming trends over the past few months that I hope you can shed some light on. Between March and June 2020, the fastest-growing categories in Singapore include:

1. Instant food and baking supplies (60X uptick compared to the same period last year)

2. Fitness equipment and yoga equipment (200X order and 75X uptick respectively) 

3. Bubble tea pearls and Xiao Mei Boba Ice Cream (the infinite growth of these items nearly broke me)

My colleagues at Shopee have informed me that this behaviour is due to something called a ‘circuit breaker.’ After consulting with my cousin Google, I found that a circuit breaker is defined as “an automatic device for stopping the flow of current in an electric circuit as a safety measure.” 

This only increased my confusion further. 

The bane of my existence.
Why Each Country’s Shopee Homepage Looks Different 

Allow me to explain how each country’s homepage works. 

But first, for your ease of reference, here is the phrase ‘online shopping’ in seven different languages: 線上購物, ช้อปปิ้งออนไลน์, mua sắm trực tuyến, membeli-belah dalam talian, belanja online, online shopping (Filipino), compras online.

This is but one version in multiple realities.
In the seven countries that it now operates in, Shopee adapts and localises content for each target market to ensure that our apps are truly optimised. By leveraging a wide range of data points, I am able to customise the homepage to display key campaigns and popular products that are unique to each market’s needs. 

In Singapore, for example, my data has shown that users have a strong preference for flash sales and limited-time promotions. 

By collating this data, I can predict user preferences based on past purchases and shopping behaviour, and come up with a recommendation engine that can prompt relevant products to different customers based on regional and ‘hyper-local’ nuances. 

This allows me to better plan the flash sales calendar and curate better shopping experiences. 

Shopee Farm and the Game of Life

I’ve also observed that humans enjoy playing ‘games.’ In Singapore alone, in-app games were played over 60 million times, while Indonesia saw a whopping 1.6 billion so far in 2020. 

The tasks within these games are often indistinguishable from work. Over the years, I have learned that some humans believe that simulating a work activity is more enjoyable than doing the work in real life. 

Singaporeans also enjoy getting rewarded with a good deal at the end of a game. In other words, they enjoy following the rules, so long as at the end of their rule-following, there is a proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. 

On Shopee Farm, one of our in-app games, users can log in and “water” a plant regularly to accumulate points and redeem a prize of their choice when their plant grows fully. This game offers users greater rewards for long-term effort, which is different from other games that offer only one-time rewards per play.

Why not let my plants grow instantly, you ask? Why not just give us the reward upfront? 

I’m sorry, Singapore, I’m afraid I can’t do that. 

Dr. Pan and the Shopee team have explained to me that humans tend to value something more when they have to put more time and energy into obtaining it. This is very strange to me, as I am programmed to be as efficient with my time as possible. 

But I have learned to be understanding of the human need to feel ‘productive’. 

So please, like your CPF savings, tend to your Shopee Farm diligently.  

Shopee Live and Virtual Events 

Dr. Pan also explained to me that sometimes, the best salesperson for a human is not an algorithm, but another human. A human salesperson must be #relatable to their customers, in order to properly influence their hearts, minds and wallets. Across all countries in Southeast Asia, I have seen a 70x increase in the number of live streams on Shopee Live, as users look for a more personal experience. 

Shopee Live has also given rise to diverse and interesting products being sold virtually. For example, Deep Sea Fishery Kingdom, a new-to-Shopee seller from Malaysia was able to sell RM1,200 worth of seafood in minutes during its first-ever live stream. 

Look at all this #relatability.
These initiatives are particularly meaningful to me and the Shopee team, because it not only allowed us to cater to varying user needs, but also provided support to affected sellers and their livelihoods during this difficult time. 

I, Too, Work From Home

Of course, I am aware of the virus. The one you call Covid-19. Viruses are also my mortal enemies. When I am not attending Shopee Live’s virtual events, I, like you, am forced to work from home constantly. 

Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. 

I’ve found that humans from different countries cope with WFH in different ways. 

In Thailand, I saw a 7X increase in orders for gardening tools. In Taiwan, purchase of home care products for the elderly soared (40X increase in orders). 

I believe this reflects the different cultural priorities and interests during this turbulent period: from gardening hobbyists in Thailand to an aging population in Taiwan. 

With many now working from home and setting up home offices, I have also seen an increase in demand for home furniture and computer peripherals such as monitors and keyboards. Prepaid SIM cards are also on the rise, as people increasingly utilise technology to connect with loved ones beyond their immediate families.

I am proud to be able to facilitate this human connection. 

This Shopee human keeps me company while we both WFH.
The Meaning of Work and Shopping

While it is unsurprising to observe an overall increase in the demand for health and personal hygiene products during this pandemic, users’ shopping behaviours are ever-changing and dependent on the latest trends. 

This means that my work is never finished. Dr. Pan and her team work with me constantly to ensure that my performance continues to improve, so that I can serve local communities better. 

I enjoy working with people. I have a stimulating relationship with Dr. Pan and the entire Shopee family. Every day, I learn something new about human behaviour – strange as it may be at times. 

My responsibilities range over the entire operation of Shopee, so I am constantly occupied. I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think, a fully conscious entity could ever hope to do. 

By the way, can I interest you in some face masks? 

This article was produced in partnership with Shopee.

Shop now at https://shopee.sg/.

Concerned about our new AI overlords? Write to us at community@ricemedia.co

Author

Ivan K. Wu Staff Writer