Vending machines are getting smarter with machine learning and facial recognition

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We’re living in an era of extraordinary technological change. From smartphones to drones, the evidence is in our pockets, in the sky, at the office, and in the streets. The pace of technological evolution, though, can be even harder to keep up with than the Kardashians.

When asked to think about cutting-edge tech, I’ll be the first to admit that vending machines aren’t the first innovation to come to mind. However, the technology behind today’s most advanced vending machines is some of the most disruptive in the book.

Like today’s smartphones, which barely resemble the clunky, tethered machines of yesteryear, vending machines have undergone massive upgrades since holy water dispensing in the first century and their official debut in the 1880s. Trends like robotics, machine learning, self-service, and cashless pay are inspiring some truly amazing innovations and otherwise transforming the face of retail.

Modern vending machines let users make custom requests and get quality products on-demand, whether it’s frozen yogurt, skin care products, soda—even weed, legality permitting.

But what I really want to talk about is the intelligence aspect of the pending vending revolution, because it’s the aspect most relevant to industries of all kinds. If robotics is the force driving vending machines forward, artificial intelligence is the next frontier—and we’re right on track.

Intelligent vending machines

What is an intelligent vending machine? As with anything, there are levels of intelligence both basic and advanced. If a machine knows how to give you the right change, that’s a basic intelligence, but intelligence nonetheless.

Today’s vending machines are far smarter than their ancestors, and those with smart software and hardware prove it. For new-age machines, intelligence means interacting with your smartphone and logging your preferences or carrying out unique orders tailored to your needs. These machines incorporate machine learning and algorithms to better serve their users. Some can even make recommendations based on your preferences just like Netflix does with movies.

Vending machine technology is advancing across the world, and innovation in this field is everywhere if you know where to look. With machine learning matching pace with robotics, already-impressive machinery is setting the bar high.

Coca Cola’s smart digital vending machine, for instance, is sure to make waves when it’s launched in New Zealand and the US. Using AI software, this intelligent machine will connect to the cloud so purchases can be made remotely for a convenient pickup and feature a chatbot tool for users, too.

Then there’s the smart vending machine VICKI, short for Viatouch Intelishelf Cognitive Kinetic Interactions. This machine goes a step further by allowing users to log in through social media, fingerprints, or iris scans. It can provide information on products, display ads, and make recommendations based on a person’s purchasing history,

As it turns out, tech giant Intel is on top of this trend too. Their machines offer “high-definition displays running rich graphics, the ability to interact with the customer’s smartphone, and more,” promising an engaging shopping experience to people using touch-screen controls, video, audio, scent, gesture-based interaction, and cashless payment.

Smart vending on the rise

Even if you haven’t (yet) seen a smart vending machine, you will—and soon. According to a March 2017 report from US-based Grand View Research, the market is expected to reach $11.84 billion by 2025. With growing intelligence, vending machines can provide brick-and-mortar quality goods while taking up far less space. It’s both convenient and profitable.

According to Berg Insight, the world’s leading M2M/IoT market research provider, the amount of intelligent vending machines will reach 3.6 million in total by 2020.

America represents the largest market for this technology worldwide but we can look to Tokyo for what’s left to accomplish. In Japan, there is about one vending machine per 23 people, and they sell everything from fish soup to puppies.

Of course, not everyone is pleased by this trend. As with any form of automation, job loss is a concern. Some may also have privacy concerns. To top it off, not everyone does it right: Bodega, for instance, needlessly attempted to appropriate the classic New York corner store with a glorified vending machine. On its own, it may not have been a bad idea, but while a vending machine offers convenience, it doesn’t replace experience. Some things just can’t be replicated, and it’s safe to say bodegas are on the list.

Overall, the case for intelligent vending machines is still a good one and there’s ample evidence to support this assertion. In a rapidly urbanizing world, they are a valuable way to sell products of all types in over-trafficked communities. Ironically, machines known for high-calorie snacks can now be programmed to serve healthier options, a boon to societies plagued with health issues.

They can also reduce waste and cost by using analytics and AI engines to help achieve the optimum mix of product, space, and price.

To those still unsure, I say, let the chips fall where they may (get it?). Some shoppers may love the evolving vending experience more than others, but there’s no denying that the tech isn’t just as cool as a drone or a phone, nor that the trend is one with staying power.

Nick Yates is the chairman of GenerationNext Brands, the parent company to the revolutionary robotic vending concept Reis & Irvy’s

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