Now, if a clerk asks to help you, it probably means you’ve been acting shady.

Artificial intelligence continues to seep into our daily lives, touching up photos, developing snacks, and imitating school girls online. Now, AI has been tasked with tackling a crime as old as retail itself: shoplifting.

A recent study by telecom giant NTT found that Japanese businesses lose around 400 billion yen (US$3.7B) annually through five-fingered discounts. No store is immune to this larceny, except perhaps anvil shops, and technology has yet to come up with a strong enough solution to effectively combat it, until now.

NTT and tech company Earth Eyes have joined up to create AI Guardman (“guardman” is the common Japanese-English word for “security guard”). This is a new type of security camera that is backed up with an AI system that can detect behaviors attributed to shoplifters.

The way it works is simple. The camera watches the store interior and identifies all the humans inside as they walk about. AI Guardman is aware of the different techniques commonly used by shoplifters in different types of stores, such as looking for blindspots in supermarkets or constantly checking one’s surroundings in bookstores.

If one shopper exhibits motions and postures typical of a shoplifter in that type of store, an alert will be sent to the clerk’s smartphone telling them the location and a photo of the suspect. 

The clerk then goes over to the person and asks, “Good day! Can I help you find something today?” The friendly approach is effective enough at spooking potential sticky-fingers out of their thefts, but can also lead to genuine customer service in the event the AI screwed up.

Using their smartphone, the clerk logs whether or not they confronted the suspect, and the results are shared by both the store and AI Guardman system to improve their security. This way, even if shoplifters get wise to the system and begin to change their tactics, the AI can automatically keep up with them.

Preliminary tests appear to be effective as well. Trials have been conducted by major retailers such as electronics megastore Bic Camera, drug store Kirindo, and sporting goods store Xebio. One particular store reported a drop in shoplifting losses from 3.5 million yen ($32,000) per yer to 2 million ($18,000), and it is expected that the system will get stronger as it is used.

Before you consider buying one to protect your own personal valuables from pilfering siblings, the AI Guardman costs a fair amount. One camera, which has a range of 13 meters (43 feet) across 144 degree swath, costs 238,000 yen ($2,200) up front. Then, there’s the 4,500 yen ($41) per camera monthly fee for usage of the cloud data it produces.

Considering the potential savings in lost merchandise, it would be a small price to pay for businesses, however. It will also be interesting to see if humans can actually adapt to this AI and find more creative ways to steal, or if such technology will actually be the end of shoplifting as we know it.

On a personal level it will also be interesting. Sometimes, when I’m lingering extra long at the convenience store because I can’t decide if I want a curry donut or melon bread, I wonder if I’m looking particularly shopliftery. Now, when someone asks if they can help me, I’ll know for sure. Thanks AI!

Source: NTT, IT Media, Hachima Kiko
Top image: YouTube/Earth Eyes
Insert image: @Press (1, 2)