Meet the random shopper: Amazon gifts bought at a machine's whim

Boston coder Darius Kazemi's interest in chance led him to create a bot that buys stuff on Amazon: a human decision made ineluctably alien by the randomness of a computer's whim.

Workers fulfull orders at an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley, England. REUTERS/Phil Noble

What would a bot buy from Amazon, if given life—and a gift card loaded with credit? Noam Chomsky's Cartesian Linguistics, apparently.

It's hard to believe that'd be a random choice, but it is, coming from a creature engineered for randomness by a man fascinated with randomness -- and consumerism. My friend Darius Kazemi, Boston-based developer extraordinaire, has a long-held interest in randomness. He's made the Twitter account @metaphorminute, designed to tweet a random metaphor every couple minutes, and OutSlide, which generates a random set of slides based on phrase-oriented Google image results.

With a background primarily in games, he's always been drawn to roguelikes and other games where random generation is a factor in the experience; he's attracted to the idea of "abdicating design decisions to a computer."

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For example, he recently noticed an apparently-random area of Manhattan where real estate seems particularly expensive; for some reason, trading computers have superior latency there, leading financial firms to buy up real estate all to gain space for a couple of extra machines and the efficiency thereof. The whim of a machine caused an unpredictable spike in the value of a certain spot on the landscape.

"I like randomness because it's telling you straight up that there's a computer making this decision, and it's completely alien," Kazemi tells me over the phone. "It's based off no criteria that you'd ever use in your own life."

In the recent year he and his spouse have bought a house, and with it comes increased thought on the conscientious couple's part to ideas about consumerism, "things." Kazemi noticed how the occasional sudden arrival of back-ordered Amazon products he'd long since forgotten about ordering feels somehow more exciting, "like a gift you bought yourself," and wondered what it would feel like to design a program that buys you things seemingly at random?

The bot's purpose, in Kazemi's words, is largely to "fill [his] life with crap," to see if somehow those purchases feel more or less meaningful than something he would have conscientiously chosen himself; a way, if you will, of exploring his attachment to that "crap."

Thus Random Shopper was born, complete with controls that keep it from buying anything too expensive or too physically large (spouse Courtney was "supportive," Kazemi says, but "was also like, 'I don't want skis showing up at the house.'"). Random Shopper has its own Amazon account, and its budget is limited to a set amount on a gift card. For now, Kazemi's restricted its categories to CDs, DVDs and paperback books -- that keeps the size issue under control, and limits purchases to stuff that's easily digitized, consumable and can be given away or donated, "as opposed to, like, a plug for a device that I don't own," he explains.

The bot shops using a random word plucked from the Wordnik API. Since Kazemi is able to run simulations on the bot up to the point of actual purchase, he plans to experiment with other categories, like housewares, just to see what kinds of things the bot would send.

"It's like having a martian as a personal shopper," he reflects.

The first time he turned on the bot, Kazemi eagerly awaited his first shipment, which he knew would come the following week. "When I saw the Chomsky book, I laughed," he says. "My AI just sent me a Chomsky book; that's hilarious, because Chomsky did a lot of work that was instrumental in the early formulation of AI."

The second gift: A fingerprint-logo black CD case that simply read "Ákos Rózmann" on the front, a name Kazemi had never heard. "The first track is this really abrasive noise, and it sounds like there's something wrong with the CD, and I was going, 'well, either this is some very avant-garde music, or I got a defective CD...' by the second track, I actually really liked it, and I was smiling ear to ear," he enthuses. "It was like, 'my bot sent me an awesome present.'"

Personifying bots is easy and comes naturally, Kazemi reflects. When it comes to his @metaphorminute bot, "I certainly consider it to be like a child. Not a child I'm particularly attached to, and if it died, I wouldn't cry. But maybe to the extent your pet goldfish is like a child, and you are responsible for it," he says. Once, @metaphorminute accidentally used foul language, tasking the parent with teaching it how to talk politely. "I do sort of casually refer to them like you'd refer to a child -- 'one of my bots did the cutest thing today!'"

Since that initial purchase, Random Shopper has sent along The Oxford History of World Cinema, 1995 sci-fi film Screamers, and something called the Covenant Discipleship Parents' Handbook. And has drawn some criticism, too, of the developer's leisure to spend real money on a bot that always runs the very real risk of essentially wasting money.In a blog post Kazemi says he recognizes the validity of that criticism, but likens it to the cost artists invest in supplies or research.

And there is an element of very conscious subversion to Random Shopper: "I like the idea of jamming Amazon's recommendations slightly, by having a consumer that doesn't conform to any statistical models," he says. "It's a tiny subversion, but I like that idea. I have a friend who was obsessed with putting nonsensical information in his Facebook profile just to throw off their predictive algorithms a bit. It's kind of like that."

Theoretically, if a mass of people changed all their Facebook data to nonsense, or set random shopper armies loose on Amazon, it'd break these services' growing ability to know us through data, to target and market to people with increasingly-unnerving, ever more personalized aptitude.

"Something else that's interesting to me is that within randomness, there's the idea of apophenia -- the human tendency to find patterns where there are none," Kazemi notes, pointing to how people once saw gods in the patterns of stars, or see deities in stains and mottles. "It'll be interesting to see how my relationship to this stuff evolves."

"Mostly it comes down to my weird sense of humor," he adds. "It's not that technically challenging to do this stuff."

Published 8:55 am Wed, Dec 26, 2012

About the Author

Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra editor-at-large, Kotaku and EDGE mag columnist, and NYLON Guys games editor, is on Twitter.

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29 Responses to “Meet the random shopper: Amazon gifts bought at a machine's whim”

  1. I’m most interested in the shot of the Amazon warehouse. I remember reading a fascinating article a while back (maybe here?) about what a shitty job that is. Hard on the sole/soul.

    • oasisob1 says:

      I’d like to work in an Amazon warehouse for just a month or so, long enough to learn how to place annoying orders. I can picture the worker now “This jerk always orders two things, just two, and they are always from opposite ends of the warehouse”.

      • invictus says:

        I can see it now…

        I’ve spent $1,300 at Amazon this year on stuff I didn’t want, but I’ve gone up six levels in “annoying troll!”

      • Boomzilla says:

         Sadly for your plan, Amazon employs thousands of staff to pick products from its shelves. You “annoying” order wouldn’t be annoying at all; the closest pickers to the location of the items you order would do the picking. No wasted foot leather there!

  2. daemonsquire says:

    Given Kazemi’s description, I thought for sure I’d find Ákos Rózmann on the shelves at aquariusrecords.org, but no! There is, however, a tasty sample up on YouTube, posted to accompany an article on an apparently short-lived noise blog.

  3. Max Allan says:

    http://xkcd.com/576/
    Explores what can happen with random bot purchases.

    I have considered doing it a couple of times.

    • traalfaz says:

      Came here to post this link.  There’s almost always a relevant XKCD.

      • spejic says:

        XKCD links are the annoying nerd version of “The Simpsons did it first”.

        • wysinwyg says:

          I thought “The Simpsons did it first” was the annoying nerd version of “The Simpsons did it first”?

          Edit: I need a definition for common typo/future neologism “versino”.

          Also, I need a neologism for “future neologism”.

  4. Funk Daddy says:

    I used the randome word generator, then searched that list (6) on amazon and limited myself to 20$ per purchase to see what I would get if I did have a random bot shopper. 

    1 Transesterfication – Got me a study of some aspects of biofuels/lubricants properties of 
    2. Whyever – Got me a book called Guava Dreams, didn’t look bad.
    3. Bioinformational – Got me a book about behaviour 
    4. Definition (well-played, random word generator) – Got me High-Definition Facial Powder, which I had been unaware of, to sort of ironically hide my features from HD cameras, if I were to be in front of one (unlikely)
    5. Stylohyoid – Got me a pamphlet on Muscle Origins and Insertions
    6. Panther – Got me a toothbrush featuring the branding of an NFL team from a Carolina. 

    All in all I would be out some $80 or so and would have 1 book I might read, or start to read, and a toothbrush bearing symbology meaningless to me, plus some other crap.

    I think I’ll just get my own stuff I guess

  5. negentropoid says:

    Are (supremely salient) plugs allowed?

    Here’s a website I developed that offers a more targeted ”aleatory shopping” experience on Amazon (UK only): http://jungletrapper.com (it’s free to use, and funded – in theory! – by Amazon affiliate links).

    The site is a price notification tool with a difference: it let’s you express an interest in categories of things instead of just individual items (e.g. any books written by X, or published by Y; any films directed by Z; any music issued by label Q; etc.) and associate a threshold price with each category. You get notified daily (by email if you wish, or via the site), when things becomes available within a specified price-point/category. This lets you bottom-feed Amazon’s UK Marketplace, which frequently offers very cool stuff at close-out prices.

    The site also remembers what you tell it you’re not interested in, so it doesn’t keep spamming you with the same old stuff.

  6. Preston Sturges says:

    There is a huge amount of random shopping being done on Amazon by Amazon Prime customers.

    When you see an item listed with a similar “frequently bought together” item, people are buying multiple items with the obvious intention of returning them, and they be claiming these items are “defective” in order to trigger a full refund.  Then the item vanishes back into the Amazon warehouse system, so the seller has lost control of their inventory.  Often the items “purchased together” are not even similar items except looking smiliar.

    Customers actually ADMIT that they do not read the product description before ordering, they just look at the picture, assuming that they will get free shipping off all the stuff they order.

    •  I don’t understand why you assert people would be doing this. For the fun of costing Amazon money? Or does this somehow end up saving them money on one of the purchases?

      • Preston Sturges says:

        Amazon Prime customer wants to buy a new golf putter.  They order 3 different putters with Fulfillment by Amazon.  The putters arrive, and they mess around with them for a few days before picking the one they want and asking for refunds on the other two.  So they ask for the return shipping labels and ask for a full refund by picking the default choice “not as described on the web site,” or maybe they’ll say “defective” or “wrong size.”   Now the items go back into the black hole of the Amazon warehouse system, possibly hundred of miles from the vendor, so that may well be a complete loss.

        If the seller questions the customer about their claim that they were shipped the wrong item, the seller is likely to respond with incoherent hate mail in the comments and ratings, which can have a serious negative impact.  The seller usually has to cave to the customers demands.

        There is no such thing as “free shipping.”  There is only shipping someone else paid for.  Maybe I could order 500 different throw pillows, and keep only one, and expect other customers to pay for shipping the other 499 and expecting the seller to eat the cost of the 499 pillows.  Not to mention the army of FedEx trucks that are zooming around the country for my original delivery and all the returns.  And in real life, people order the pillow by looking at the pictures and ignoring the descriptions, because they know they aren’t going to keep them or pay for them.

        People do this because they are lazy, or stoned, or hoarders, or maybe they are just lonely.

        That’s why sellers ship direct and they have a restock fee.

        •  Ah now I get you. I’ve wondered a lot about how people’s behavior changes when they get Prime, especially in ways that are costly to Amazon (and presumably sellers). I assume for Amazon it’s balanced by how much more stuff they buy, but I hadn’t thought about sellers’ inventory.

        • Charlie B says:

           or because it’s the only way to try out three putters before buying one.

  7. leidentech says:

    I think the only thing a self-respecting bot would buy these days is a Raspberry Pi.

  8. Itsumishi says:

    The  @metaphorminute:disqus twitter account does not tweet a metaphor every few minutes. It tweets a non-sensical bunch of (often obscure) random words, strung together loosely in the form of a metaphor every few minutes.

    Here’s an example:
    a frankincense is a lanyard: eurythmic, but not shrimplike Which roughly translates to:

    An aromatic compound frequently used in incense is a piece of rope worn around the neck to hold objects at the ready; in harmony with its surrounds, but not like a shrimp.

  9. SoItBegins says:

    Day six: “The hell? Who mails a bobcat?”

    • ohbejoyful says:

      I bought a used 6′ stepladder on eBay about 8 years ago.  It was shipped via FedEx; it was just strapping-taped closed, with the mailing label stuck onto the tape.

      If you can put postage and an address on it, you can mail it.

      • The Rizz says:

        If you can put postage and an address on it, you can mail it.

        So true

      • Dean Putney says:

        When I was in boarding school, I pushed a girl in the dorm over, ripped one of her shoes off of her, then ran down to the post office and mailed it back to her by writing the address on it. It cost me like $6 since it was an odd-shaped package, but it was worth it.

        After she received it the next day after hobbling around with only one shoe, she and a friend stole my pillow and mailed it back to me. Apparently the mailman thought all this was hilarious and wanted to know what these crazy kids were going to mail next.

  10. Benjamin dyson says:

    He have added an extra dimension and purchased from a selection of different countries Amazon sites! To make it easy to code going though an Amazon price comparison site like http://www.huge-river.com that compares prices of all the different amazon’s around Europe!

  11. Brett Jensen says:

    Holy buried lede.

  12.  That Ákos Rózmann CD is excellent.

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