BOTS CAN’T DANCE

It’s official. 2017 is the year we went mad. All of us here in the UK, anyway. On the one hand we are resigned to the fact it will probably take twenty years to unravel a few trade agreements with the EU, and yet, on the other hand, we fully expect a driverless car to be whisking us off to work within a few months. We mutter endlessly about the naivety of our political leaders, but will happily recount the news that Elon Musk and Matt Damon will shortly be starting a colony on Mars. And in the pub on a Friday night we can be heard thanking god for the robots that will replace us at work, so that finally we’ll have the time to make home-brew, do the gardening and enjoy life on the UBI (Universal Basic Income).

We’re told that shopping will radically change too, when the supermarket shelf stackers are replaced by little Star Wars droids that work through the night, at considerably less than the minimum wage. During the day, of course, those shelves will sing with Minority Report style promotions, designed especially for us.

Dinner party conversation is of home-robot chefs, exactly as predicted by the Jetsons in the sixties. Sillier still, we grin like schoolchildren at talk of sex bots with hyper-realistic latex skin and randomly blinking eyes, that will keep us company and a lot more besides.

The future has never looked so puffed up and swaggeringly arrogant as it does right now. Drone deliveries, telepathically controlled computers, flying cars, homes that talk back to us, 3D printed organs, lab grown meat and brands that know what we want before we do. It’s all very scary.

Oh come on. The future may be racing towards us faster than ever but it’s probably not a bad idea to hang on to some sense of reality a tad longer. It’s as if the mundanity of ordinary life has become so mind-numbing that we reserve our optimism exclusively for fantastical visions of the future, the ones that will probably never happen. Call me Mr D. Squib if you must, but a little injection of practical, down to earth common sense may help put things into some sort of context, so that we’re not so desperately disappointed when the future finally arrives. Which, of course, it never does.

Firstly, we will not be washing our driverless cars on a Sunday morning. A vehicle that can take us to work as we read our tablets already exists. It’s called a train. Or a bus, for that matter. Our roads are clogged already thanks, and they’re unlikely to free up when we each own an autonomous vehicle. And what does it do once it’s deposited us at work? There won’t be room for it to park up and wait for us to finish. No, what our techno-boffins are promising here is a sophisticated new mode of public transport, charged by the mile no doubt.

Drones are more than ready and able to deliver to your door, but reality will kick in when drone delivery goes mass market. There is no way governments will allow swarms of electronic bats to hover above our homes all hours of the day and night, awaiting a thumbprint signature. Not least because they’ll get in the way of their own surveillance drones. Oh yes, that’s sure to happen.

Connected home technology has already become mainstream, if not mass market, but the benefits are limited, simply because our homes are old, often very old, stock. Besides, the opportunity to control the heating remotely was solved decades ago by a simple timer.

The exhilarating vision of talking shelves and shelf-stacking bots can be crushed in one fell swoop, I’m afraid. Supermarkets are already being replaced by local, smaller, more artisan producers. We won’t be wheeling our trolleys past holographic shelf ads because we won’t be wheeling trolleys, full stop. Not because the technology isn’t ready.

Home robots that do the cooking and cleaning are still a very long way off, simply because comprehensive, sensory dexterity is bloody difficult, as well as ridiculously expensive. Rest assured that by the time they’re available you certainly won’t be able to afford one. Not on your UBI anyway! And for the record, Universal Basic Income will be a disaster: another debilitating measure to make us even more state dependent…and utterly useless for the economy.

And saving the juiciest until last, I mean, really? You think a sex bot will ever replace human intimacy? Maybe for a few psychopaths it will, but it’s worth remembering that bots can’t dance yet. And when they do, it just won’t be sexy.

Join me on Twitter @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Jul 19, 2017   Brand, face recognition, Future, Retail, shopping, technology   0 Comment   Read More

THE SELF-PHONE part 2: Bedside Manner

So now that we’ve established the smartphone is the greatest and most disruptive innovation since fire, the wheel, the computer and even sliced bread, we can begin to plot its true potential.

With our GODs (Great Overlords of Data) clutched to our breasts we are more empowered today than at any time in history. The question is what will we do with such immense power, or perhaps more importantly, what wonders will the power of data bring us that we haven’t even conceived of yet. Evolutionarily speaking we’ve only just been granted such privileged access to all human knowledge and, in turn, we have barely begun to upload our own data: our personal preferences, tastes and medical histories. This is where it gets really interesting. GOD’s thirst for ever more knowledge is unquenchable and you can be sure the size of his file on you will grow exponentially over the coming decade.

One of the consequences of this is surely the demise of your friendly GP. She may be in fine fettle, if a little stressed, so I’m sorry to report her job will become redundant long before your London cabbie hangs up his tweed cap and an autonomous vehicle whisks you off to work.

The driverless car has become the Kardashian of technology, grabbing all the headlines, full of promise as it flaunts its rotund posterior on California’s six lane highways. Terrified of missing out, every motor manufacture worth its salt is clamouring for a slice of the sexy autonomous limelight, whilst poor millennial geeks are tasked with the impossible job of plotting every gutter and manhole cover on London’s knotted streets. It’s not easy.

But meanwhile, quietly in the background, Google is working on another AI project, but one that is far more life changing than a car whose steering wheel you don’t have to touch. Google’s Deepmind Health technology uses machine learning to analyse medical data and, although it’s very early days, the speed and accuracy of the diagnoses is impressive. Microscopic discrepancies in eye scans, for example, can pinpoint the early stages of a multitude of diseases. Currently Deepmind is partnering politely with the NHS on a few pilot schemes, but just consider what happens when this technology comes directly to us.

At the same time, Apple is working on monitoring technology that makes your Fitbit look, well…like a Fitbit. Apple’s ResearchKit program hoovers up data from its enormous pool of global iPhone users, on an hourly basis if necessary, to build apps that know more about specific conditions and diseases than any doctor could dream of in a thousand lifetimes.

When Steve Jobs launched the App Store, on July 10th 2008, he had just 552 apps for download. By 2013 a million apps were available. This is exactly the level of growth we can expect for wellness, and medical apps too. If the sharing of information is ultimately what makes our species so powerful, then just imagine how far the access to all this knowledge will propel us. It is truly exciting.

The iPhone is a fast learner. It can diagnose early stage Parkinson’s by analysing balance, gait and memory with data collected from its inbuilt gyroscope. Using the camera, facial recognition algorithms can diagnose autism in children as young as eighteen months. Conditions such as asthma, concussion, diabetes, melanoma and hepatitis C can all be better managed by patients armed with apps that can advise on a minute by minute basis. Add all this to a phone that will, more than likely, carry a map of your entire genome and we will have a clearer picture of ourselves than has ever been imagined.

Contrast that with the hurried consultation from your overworked GP who got a 2.1 from UCL in 1983. The best we’ve come to expect is some hasty keyboard rattling as she attempts to access your files and, if you’re lucky, a little eye contact too. This will all seem rather quaint very soon indeed. In a few short years we will have the greatest medical consultant of all time in our pockets during the day, and on the bedside table every night.

The Luddites that resist this change, that prefer to see ‘a real doctor’ whether from a sense of loyalty or from fear of privacy breaches, will soon succumb once they watch their friends flourish as they take control of their lives.

So relax. The great disruption has arrived. Dr Google, Dr Apple and Dr Watson will see you very shortly.

Please join me in the Twittersphere @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Mar 15, 2017   face recognition, Future, smartphone, technology, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

FACE RECOGNITION SOFTWARE: ACTIVATE!


A couple of years ago I had dinner with a memory man. I forget his name but we were both speaking at a retail conference somewhere that’s slipped my mind now, but he was very entertaining. He’d just completed his ‘pick any name from the telephone book’ routine, followed by a quick-fire round where in return for our date of birth he’d shout out the day of the week we were born. He seemed a friendly sort, so over a glass of red I dared ask him the elephant in the room ‘how do you do it?’ question.

Taking a simple example he explained how the common excuse for not remembering names, ie. ‘I’m much better with faces’ is utter nonsense. ‘Everyone remembers faces!’ he scoffed, ‘You have to work at the names.’ His trick was to turn every name into an image, so that when you are introduced to say, Mark Butters you picture a huge melting block of butter on his head with a giant M marked onto it. The sillier the better, apparently.


This is an important lesson for retail because names are the currency of hospitality and using someone’s name in a social situation is like a very personal gift. The smartest retailers are already training their staff to use the customer’s name once they get sight of the credit card, to the point now that it feels rude when stores hand back your card with no acknowledgement!

Things are about to get a lot more complex with the advent of new technologies. Face recognition software is already being used by many retailers, including Walmart, to enhance their security systems. And how do you think Google and Facebook are able to tag your photos?

A few clever types are currently attempting to make our digital companions more emotionally intelligent too. Ted Women recently published a talk by the persuasive Rana el Kaliouby who’s developing an app that recognises how happy, sad or bored we are. By analysing thousands of tiny eye movements and the way our mouths react it can tell how we’re feeling. This is all very advanced and well meaning but it worries me. As I’ve said before, the problem with nerd valley, sorry Silicone Valley, is that it gets over excited with nerdist things. If you proposed an app that would have Sunday lunch with your parents to save you turning up, they would make it happen.

Predicting the impact of new technologies means looking beyond the techno-frenzy, sifting out the absurd and focussing on things that really can improve the quality of our lives. The tidal wave of big data that’s heading our way will bring us more information about the people and things around us than we can imagine but it is wrong to assume that we humans will be forced to take a backseat. The opposite will be the case. I believe that as machines get smarter they will free us up to do the things we’re good at: the hospitality, the persuasion, the charm, intuition, social etiquette, emotionally intelligent communication…the humanity! Every store, every bar, every hospital we enter will know everything they need to know about us. It will be our job as humans to make customers feel welcome and respected. It’s anonymity that causes problems; whether it’s trolling on Twitter, vandalizing bus shelters or the virtual violent crime we commit playing Grand Theft Auto, when we’re anonymous we’re willing to do terrible things. Expose our identities, and backstories and it’s much harder for us to be mean or treat others badly.

Retail technology should give us identity, not make us anonymous. Last weekend, when delayed at LaGuardia airport I came across a new bar concept. There was actually a very nice selection of beers, some local to New York, which always puts a smile on my face but punctuated along the bar in front of the taps was an avenue of iPads. When I asked what the deal was, I was told to order and pay via the tablet, the bar staff would then bring the beer. ‘Do you actually like this system?’ I dared to ask the girl. An eye roll and an abrupt ‘No’ was all she needed to say. Having punctured this little bubble of nonsense allowed the other customers to join in with noises of exasperation as to how ridiculous the whole thing was. Strange how intelligent humans, clever enough to invest in bars and pay extortionate rents, can so misunderstand our culture and the way we want to live.

It’s very easy to get over excited at the thought of an army of robots coming to take our jobs and for sure, humdrum work that can be replaced by an algorithm will be. Accountants, I’d have thought, are first in line and I’m sorry if you detect a wry smile here but they never seemed a happy bunch in the first place. The techno-revolution won’t just eliminate mundane jobs, it will demand a huge increase in intelligent hospitality. Working alongside the robots we will need an army of emotionally intelligent humans to welcome and seduce us in their branded spaces. This is the real revolution that we’re not prepared for, as it will need a massive investment in training if we are to even get close to our customer’s demanding expectations.

So, before we rush to invest in face recognition software that knows we’re having a bad day, how about first we train our staff to remember a few names?

Read more of my blogs here: http://www.22and5.com/blog/

Join me on Twitter: @SaundersHoward

  Howard Saunders   Feb 26, 2016   big data, Brand, face recognition, Future, Retail, shopping, technology   0 Comment   Read More