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Artificial Intelligence Is Reshaping How We Shop


It sounds odd, but some folks are much better at Googling than others. They find the link first, whether it’s tickets for a show, a niche answer to a trivia question or a pair of shoes you’ve lusted for since you saw them on TV. They’ve been raised by search engines, but they aren’t intimidated by the vastness of an open-ended search. They’re master keyword manipulators.

And in the era of search engine optimization, there’s less chance involved once you type in a high volume keyword: there’s a company out there tailoring its content to your chosen search, and a million others chasing its tail. When you search “boots for men,” for example, you’ll probably run into Gear Patrol’s boots buying guide. It’s there for good reason, too — it’s comprehensive, informative and flooded with stylish boots for men. This time, Google worked — it took you to content that matched your query. But what if your search was a little more abstract, like a description of the type of boot you wanted?

Try “Boots that are Yellowstone rancher meets Ralph Lauren,” for example. Google probably won’t get what you mean. If you take it to ASOS, you’ll get no matches; same on Nordstrom — or even Amazon. Even Instagram, which has been trying to pivot to e-commerce for months now, won’t fetch you the proper results, if any products at all.

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That’s where artificial intelligence comes in. A new AI called Inter Alia acts as a search engine for fashion products. It can understand abstract asks — “outfit for when we colonize Mars,” “crashing ocean waves” or “morning sunrise in Montana” — and more literal requests — “what to wear to Texas,” “living on a ranch” or “busy Paris street outfit.”

It was built by Anthropic AI technical staffer Karina Nguyen, who has also done research work for The New York Times, Wired and Bellingcat. Using products and e-commerce photography from Ralph Lauren, Proenza Shouler and Victoria Beckham, Nguyen created a “prototype visual playground” where shoppers can “explore quality outfits with their creative searches.”

For now, you can’t shop what Inter Alia populates — this is just a pilot system. It does, however, offer a glimpse into a future where our purchases are more authentic, the result of creative keyword searches that more closely mirror how we actually think about products, and, more specifically, clothing. You see, fashion is mostly references. When we see something, it typically conjures something else, forcing us to connect the dots between them. That’s why we can say things like “that looks like something John Mayer would wear.” You’re associating one shirt with the wardrobe of someone else, because you know what their clothes look like.

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This is what Inter Alia pulled for “what to wear to Texas.”

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Right now, though, you can’t really shop for “John Mayer outfits,” unless you find a publication that’s identified his favorite pieces. With the AI, though, you can search for aesthetically similar styles, creating a world wherein every shoppable item could conceivably be from his closet. In this way, we can all (sort of) break free from exploitative alrogithms.

Sure, the AI is an algorithm, but Instagram relies on constant machine learning, which helps its app learn you, the user, and make recommendations based on your actions, effectively influencing what you’ll eventually search for. It’s a vicious cycle, which is why your Explore or For You pages can quickly change from trucks and cattle to Italy trips and influencers. And they can stay that way if you signal you like it, making these topics all you see.

The AI offers a chance to explore outside the silos social media creates, because while Google does, in theory, do this, it isn’t as easily shoppable — at least not without clicking through several middlemen first.

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