Vigilant 'AI Guardman' system aims to cut shoplifting losses


As in many other countries, shoplifting is a major headache for Japan's retailers. According to statistics issued by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), in 2009, total annual losses from shoplifting nationwide exceeded approximately 450 billion yen. And yes, acknowledges Weekly Playboy (July 2), we know those statistics have become a bit stale, but will have to do until the government gets around to updating them.

What's new on the scene is that artificial intelligence (AI) may be on the verge of making major strides to cut losses from five-finger discounts. Around the end of this month Earth Eyes, a company based in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, will begin supplying its new shoplifting prevention system -- named "AI Guardman" -- to retailers.

Earth Eyes has tied up with NTT East Japan and has its, er, eyes on the national market.

Last year, the AI Guardman system underwent trials in the pharmaceuticals section of a major appliance retailer in the Tokyo metropolis. The shop was losing an average of 3.5 million yen a year to shoplifters. Adoption of the system made a major dent in customer pilferage, reducing losses to 2 million yen, or about 40%.

Weekly Playboy's reporter visited the Earth Eyes showroom in Higashi Ginza and was invited to conduct a hands-on demonstration, by stealing something from some food products out on display. After checking several times to see that he wasn't being observed by a store "clerk," he slipped a packet of cookies into his pocket.

Seconds later, a female voice piped up, saying Nani ka osagashi desu ka? (Are you looking for something?) Although the person playing the store clerk (actually a showroom employee of course) was not even turned in the direction of the reporter, the speed with which his attempted theft was detected was astonishing.

"Typically, shoplifter behavior is characterized by kyorokyoro (to move around restlessly) and urouro (aimless wandering)," explained Maimi Sawanobori, a member of Earth Eye's PR staff. The security camera, which is equipped with AI that detects such behavior, operates with high precision that is able to trace the positions of the eyes and ears, and automatically detect suspicious activities. The data is transmitted to a smart phone being held by the clerk, who then addresses the "suspect."

Afterward the reporter was invited to watch himself on a monitor from the time he entered the store. At the entry point his image was enclosed in a white frame, but as his behavior became increasingly suspicious the frame color changed to yellow, as if to alert the clerk that "there's something funny about this guy." Then after he pocketed the goodies it changed again to red, a cue to the clerk to confront the thief.

In actual cases, it doesn't always happen that way.

"We are experimenting with different ways to send alerts via the smartphones, some that make sounds and others that vibrate," says Sawanobori. "We're also considering a way for the monitor screen to produce alert sounds on its own."

Cost for an AI Guardman system begins at 230,000 yen for the AI camera. Users also pay a monthly fee of 4,000 for AI cloud service. The field tests conducted last year show that a system may pay for itself within the first six months. But will clever thieves find new and original ways to outwit it? That remains to be seen.

© Japan Today

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