Amazon amazes again with audacious anticipatory algorithm

Originally published by the Clarion-Ledger on 1/28/14 and in print on 2/1/2014.

PDF: CL Amazon 01312014

A few days ago, the blog TechCrunch reported on a plan by the “always-out-there” Amazon.com to patent a process that would anticipate the demand for certain products it sells, and even going so far as to begin shipment of those products before it actually has an order for that product.

Amazon caused a minor ripple in the space-time continuum late last year when it announced it was investigating the idea of using automated package-delivery drones. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced that the company had actually invested quite a bit of R&D money into the development of said drones, which would allow really fast (minutes, perhaps) delivery for customers who wanted it.

Well, now the tech giant has scored another PR bonanza with its patent application for a concept to ship packages before you order them. While predicting human behavior is largely a fool’s errand, statistics don’t lie, and Amazon has developed a highly-complex algorithm to predict when and if some item or other is likely to be ordered.

Amazon’s patent includes “anticipatory shipping”, which might work like Amazon described in the patent:

“packaging one or more items as a package for eventual shipment to a delivery address, selecting a destination geographical area to which to ship the package, shipping the package to the destination geographical area without completely specifying the delivery address at the time of shipment, and while the package is in transit, completely specifying the delivery address for the package.”

In other words, if Amazon’s super-duper computer algorithm determines that someone in Mississippi is likely to buy the entire Duck Dynasty series on DVD in the next week (not an unlikely scenario), Amazon will gladly have its minions pull the packages for shipment, perhaps adding a duck call and a camo toilet seat for good measure. The package will then be shipped to the area or even ride around on trucks, but will remain in shipping limbo until someone orders it.

Even if they don’t place an order, but have perused Amazon’s collection of bearded-ones merchandise online, Amazon may deliver it to them anyway. And the person lucky enough to receive that package, but who decides they don’t want it, may find that Amazon will just give it to them because the cost of shipping it back to Amazon is greater than the value it would lose.

Really, this is just good old-fashioned American ingenuity at work. Companies have always tried to figure out what the customer really wants, and the company who gets closest will likely win the race. It’s certainly a gamble, but as we have discovered, the company which invented “1-click Ordering” is no slouch when it comes to playing the odds. I wouldn’t bet against them.

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