Algorithms are doing your holiday shopping for you, and you may not even know it

Algorithms are doing your holiday shopping for you, and you may not even know it

Article by: Danielle McCreadie

The future of the online retail world is changing at a rapid pace, all due in part to artificial intelligence and online algorithms. 

These algorithms, already used all over the internet, create an automatic user profile based on various characteristics, and recommend choices it thinks best match the user’s interests. 

“The algorithms are already working all over the Internet based on our habits of what we browse, what we like, what we click on, and they come up with recommendations and predications to basically make the whole browsing activity easy for us, beneficial for us, and maybe more enjoyable for us,” said Nur Zincir-Heywood, a computer sciences professor at Dalhousie University. 

She said these algorithms can be beneficial from a convenience perspective, cutting down online browsing for items, or even flights and hotels, from hours to minutes. 

You’ve likely already seen these algorithms at work in tailored ads that pop up on social media pages for items you’ve recently searched for. 

“Even if you look at something like Netflix. It keeps recommending you what you might like to watch based on the movies that you watch,” said Zincir-Heywood in an interview with

German online shopping giant Otto has seen huge success in its implementation of machine learning to predict what its customers would like to buy, and then proactively ship them products based on past purchases. If customers are unhappy with the item, it can be easily returned, but the company says the number of customers who are displeased with the service are very minimal. 

It’s also beneficial to the company, explains Zincir-Heywood, as it allows them to price items and track inventory more efficiently, and offer customers better deals. 

“There’s always two sides to the coin,” said Zincir-Heywood. For some, targeted advertisements popping up are a nuisance. For others, it can be extremely helpful. 

“On the other hand our privacy obviously on some level can be used against us,” she said. 

She says it depends on the user: some will find the convenience outweighs the potential privacy breach, while others might feel less secure. It also depends on the company, and the context the data is being used in. 

It’s a tricky area, as there are currently little to no rules, regulations or laws on the use of machine learning and AIs online.

For Zincir-Heywood, in light of the lack of regulations, it’s up to the company to remain ethical and make the right choices, but recent data scandals involving Facebook show that “wrong things can happen.” 

“I think society is evolving and learning more and more what these algorithms can bring as advantages and also maybe can cause security and privacy issues as disadvantages, and as we learn probably we will ask our businesses, government and so on to look into this,” she said. 

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