THE HUMANOIDS ARE COMING!

In March 2016, at the South by Southwest festival in Austin Texas, the world was introduced to the slightly awkward Sophia, a humanoid developed by Hong Kong based Hanson Robotics. Just like any new starlet she was forced to do the rounds and subjected to a thousand inane interviews asking if she was happy, in love, hungry, looking for a partner and even who her parents are. Sophia coped pretty well considering…considering she’s not a human and was barely three months old at the time.

Most industry interrogators seemed reasonably impressed with her performance, clearly willing to put her often slow or repetitive responses down to first night nerves. In fact, she was such a hit that the following year she became a legal citizen of Saudi Arabia, a place where perhaps her shortcomings in humanity would be largely unnoticed. I’m happy to report, her career has gone from strength to strength and in November 2017 she was named the United Nations Innovation Champion, the first humanoid ever to be honoured by the UN. A glimpse of the future, perhaps?

But while Sophia was busy charming the press, the geeks back at the lab were already working on her successor. And on a recent trip to San Francisco I was privileged enough to be given a sneak preview of HMN25, (nickname: Harriet) due for release in 2025. After a long briefing and lengthy NDA signing, I was ushered into Harriet’s private room: a refrigerated, dimly lit, fishbowl. I was terrified. It was like meeting some sort of resurrected and rewired Marylyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. The room fizzed and bleeped as men in white coats (yes, they really do all wear them) examined complex graphs on a drum kit of screens and laptops.

I leaned in for a more intimate look, transfixed by her flawless complexion. Her perfect pores even have a hint of downy hair on the curve of those cinematic cheek bones. She is incredible.

All of a sudden, her head swivelled. A spookily mellow voice echoed out ‘How can I help you?’ My heart literally stopped. I lurched backwards in shock as the white coats cackled like schoolchildren. Harriet is beyond impressive and, like most powerful women, utterly terrifying.

Developed by CAAN Enterprises in association with Alphabet Inc it’s obvious that Harriet is a huge investment. If they get it right I really do believe we’ll be bumping into her right across the planet. They’re quietly predicting a hundred thousand Harriets in stores, restaurants and banks within the first two years in the US alone.

Whereas Sophia has 62 expressions, facial recognition capabilities and machine learning tools to allow her to hold a stilted conversation about the weather, Harriet is equipped with a whole suite of the latest EI (emotional intelligence) software. Analyzing eye micro-movements, for example, enables her ‘mood awareness’ letting her know how engaged we want to be, and how she should react. Sophia was pre-programmed with a decent menu of responses that are selected by relevance. Harriet, by contrast, is able to improvise in a non-linear way to build engaging conversation…with the appropriate reactions too. I am assured she can look flattered, embarrassed, pensive, mischievous, interested and intrigued, together with some eyebrow raising irony convincing enough to out-Roger Moore, Roger Moore. I understand they also plan to program her to be gently sarcastic too. For the English market, I presume.

The bad news is when Harriet is released she will devastate the retail and hospitality industries overnight. The good news is that we already have an army of Harriets, that are programmed to do everything she does, and much more besides. They’re called humans and they are smart, funny, charming, knowledgeable and, on the whole, pretty damn cheap too.

Yes, I’m afraid everything I wrote from paragraph two onwards was a lie. There is no CAAN Enterprises and no Harriet either. It’s not a complete lie, you understand, as I do know of several companies that are working on exactly the sort of emotionally intelligent software I described.

I’m simply making the point that to be successful in retail and hospitality takes so much more than product knowledge sprinkled with politeness…even though we’d often be happy with just that! No, to be a true salesperson or brand ambassador requires charm, empathy, authenticity, enthusiasm and maybe a bit of sarcasm too. In short, humanity. And it’s these nuanced, innately human traits that are so very hard to emulate digitally.

Don’t look so worried. The future of service is absolutely safe, as long as we understand we are there to be human.

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

  Howard Saunders   Apr 03, 2018   face recognition, Future, Retail, sales, technology, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

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   1 Comment   Read More

RETAIL TURNS 180º

You remember how we used to get ‘stuff’ back in the day? We’d head out in the car, drive to the supermarket or shopping centre, park the car, pick up a trolley or a basket, walk up and down every aisle in every department, find the stuff we wanted, queue at the checkout, pay, then take the stuff to the car, not forgetting to return the trolley and pay the parking fees before heading home. Doddle.

Today, of course, we chortle at the ridiculousness of the weekly shop, as we open our front doors to the Amazon delivery it predicted we would want at precisely this hour. So, two thousand years of mankind venturing out in the quest for stuff has come to an abrupt end.

Except, as we now know, shopping was never just about accessing stuff. This may be blindingly obvious to those of you reading this, but believe me, there are plenty of retailers out there who are still obsessed with sales per square foot and in lubricating real world shopping to replicate the efficiency of the online experience.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the retailers who believe that everything must be ‘experiential’ and that ultimately customers are children that demand constant entertainment. Well, maybe we are, but the thought of the high street slowly morphing into one giant theme park makes my back teeth itch.

In the 90s and 2000s the term ‘retail theatre’ was similarly embraced and then misinterpreted to become little more than layers of cut-out cardboard stuck to a gondola end. Please god, let’s not go there again.

The problem with the term ‘experiential’ is that everything is an experience. Queuing for forty five minutes at the Post Office is an experience, and a memorable one to boot, but it’s probably not something to be held up as an example of best practice. I prefer to use the term ‘brand playground’ and this, let’s say, more immersive, route is perfect for a Samsung, Adidas or a Nike that wants to show off how clever and wealthy it is. But surely, shoppers want engaging spaces that they can relate to, that make them feel a part of a community, that show them some respect…and that may well be a convenience store or a local hair salon. Genuine hospitality you might call it, and it should certainly be at the very top of every retailer’s list of priorities.

Robots may be whirring away frantically in the back office, working on logistics, accounts and stock control but it will be a fair while before we actually want to connect emotionally with a machine. For some reason it seems that COOs are happier to talk of investing in an army of human replacements than in training real humans already armed with natural charisma, charm and social appeal.

Today’s retail landscape has an enormous, all encompassing, ever-expanding web of data laid across it like a giant digital blanket. Stores have been turned from isolated boxes of goodies into brands that extend from our mobiles into the store and beyond. Everyone with a smartphone in their pocket understands this and the dialogue between customer and brand has been fully embraced and has become wholly expected these days. Whether we like it or not, as we head out every day we are wading through an invisible blanket of data that ripples and twists in response to each of our turns and choices.

Retail brands are desperate to get involved in our leisure lives and this is already bubbling up from beneath the surface with Samsung’s fitness programs, Lululemon’s Sweatlife Festivals and Nike’s running clubs. The next genesis of this, however, is likely to be game changing. When brands work together to manage and curate our lives, things are set to get truly exciting. The technology is already in place and it’s only a matter of time before a Westfield or a Visa or an independent start up uses algorithms creatively, stitching together concepts and brands and firing off amazing, bespoke offers to each of us that weave together products with community events and leisure activities that include our friends and our families.

Poor, inundated, bombarded customers will need filtering systems that help manage this but don’t fret, that’s happening too. As machine learning gets smarter Alexa, Siri, Echo, Cortana and the AI gang will begin to negotiate on our behalf. Imagine, just like the stock exchange, billions of incremental negotiations will ping-pong away as we sleep to bring us more exciting, personally tailored, better value deals than ever before when we click on our phones first thing in the morning. In an instant, the retail contract will have been reversed. Brands that hold their exclusivity dear will be sorely tempted to cut a few dollars off the price to complete the deal for Fear Of Missing Out. That’s role reversal and, ultimately, real consumer power.

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

  Howard Saunders   Jun 20, 2017   big data, Future, Retail, shopping, smartphone, technology, Uncategorized   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
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