High-Skilled White-Collar Work? Machines Can Do That, Too

Originally appeared in New York Times

By Noam Scheiber

  • July 7, 2018

One of the best-selling T-shirts for the Indian e-commerce site Myntra is an olive, blue and yellow colorblocked design. It was conceived not by a human but by a computer algorithm — or rather two algorithms.

The first algorithm generated random images that it tried to pass off as clothing. The second had to distinguish between those images and clothes in Myntra’s inventory. Through a long game of one-upmanship, the first algorithm got better at producing images that resembled clothing, and the second got better at determining whether they were like — but not identical to — actual products.

A Stitch Fix warehouse in San Francisco. The company relies on algorithms to help personalize shipments to customers.  CreditChristie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

A Stitch Fix warehouse in San Francisco. The company relies on algorithms to help personalize shipments to customers.

CreditChristie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

This back and forth, an example of artificial intelligence at work, created designs whose sales are now “growing at 100 percent,” said Ananth Narayanan, the company’s chief executive. “It’s working.”

Clothing design is only the leading edge of the way algorithms are transforming the fashion and retail industries. Companies now routinely use artificial intelligence to decide which clothes to stock and what to recommend to customers.

And fashion, which has long shed blue-collar jobs in the United States, is in turn a leading example of how artificial intelligence is affecting a range of white-collar work as well. That’s especially true of jobs that place a premium on spotting patterns, from picking stocks to diagnosing cancer.

A popular T-shirt sold on the Indian e-commerce site Myntra was conceived by two algorithms. One generated random images; the other identified those that resembled existing designs without duplicating them.

“A much broader set of tasks will be automated or augmented by machines over the coming years,” Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tom Mitchell, a Carnegie Mellon computer scientist, wrote in the journal Science last year. They argued that most of the jobs affected would become partly automated rather than disappear altogether.

The fashion industry illustrates how machines can intrude even on workers known more for their creativity than for cold empirical judgments. Among those directly affected will be the buyers and merchandise planners who decide which dresses, tops and pants should populate their stores’ inventory.

A key part of a buyer’s job is to anticipate what customers will want using a well-honed sense of where fashion trends are headed. “Based on the fact that you sold 500 pairs of platform shoes last month, maybe you could sell 1,000 next month,” said Kristina Shiroka, who spent several years as a buyer for the Outnet, an online retailer. “But people might be over it by then, so you cut the buy.”

Merchandise planners then use the buyer’s input to figure out what mix of clothing — say, how many sandals, pumps and flats — will help the company reach its sales goals.

In the small but growing precincts of the industry where high-powered algorithms roam free, however, it is the machine — and not the buyer’s gut — that often anticipates what customers will want.

Stitch Fix’s business would probably not exist without the use of algorithms. Among other things, they project how many clients will be in a certain situation, or “state,” several months in the future, and what volume of clothes people buy in each situation.CreditChristie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

That’s the case at Stitch Fix, an online styling service that sends customers boxes of clothing whose contents they can keep or return, and maintains detailed profiles of customers to personalize their shipments.

Stitch Fix relies heavily on algorithms to guide its buying decisions — in fact, its business probably could not exist without them. Those algorithms project how many clients will be in a given situation, or “state,” several months into the future (like expanding their wardrobe after, say, starting a new job), and what volume of clothes people tend to buy in each situation. The algorithms also know which styles people with different profiles tend to favor — say, a petite nurse with children who lives in Texas.

Myntra, the Indian online retailer, arms its buyers with algorithms that calculate the probability that an item will sell well based on how clothes with similar attributes — sleeves, colors, fabric — have sold in the past. (The buyers are free to ignore the projection.)

All of this has clouded the future of buyers and merchandise planners, high-status workers whose annual earnings can exceed $100,000.

At more conventional retailers, a team of buyers and support workers is assigned to each type of clothing (like designer, contemporary or casual) or each apparel category, like dresses or tops. Some retailers have separate teams for knit tops and woven tops. A parallel merchandise-planning group could employ nearly as many people.

Bombfell, which is similar to Stitch Fix but caters specifically to men, relies on a single buyer for its tops and accessories. The company’s data and algorithmic tools help the buyer project clothing demand.CreditJeenah Moon for The New York Times

Buyers say this specialization helps them intuitively understand trends in styles and colors. “You’re so immersed in it, you almost get a feeling,” said Helena Levin, a longtime buyer at retailers like Charlotte Russe and ModCloth.

Ms. Levin cited mint-green dresses, a top seller earlier this decade. “One day it just died,” she said. “It stopped. ‘O.K., everything mint, get out.’ Right after, it looked old. You could feel it.”

But retailers adept at using algorithms and big data tend to employ fewer buyers and assign each a wider range of categories, partly because they rely less on intuition.

At Le Tote, an online rental and retail service for women’s clothing that does hundreds of millions of dollars in business each year, a six-person team handles buying for all branded apparel — dresses, tops, pants, jackets.