AI CHANGES EVERYTHING

Don’t read this blog. Try AI yourself. Go to OpenAI, sign up to ChatGPT and have some fun. You’ll soon see that it changes everything.

You’ll have read a fair bit about it: how it will make most of us redundant (not true) and how it will transform transport, healthcare and education (true). You will have heard that the digital behemoths (Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon) have invested billions in it and you may have briefly dwelt on the potential disruption it’s likely to unleash before going back to your cornflakes. But none of this means anything until you’ve tried it yourself. Like I did.

If you’re an accountant or desk bound lawyer of some sort you’re probably half hoping you’ll be put out to pasture on UBI and craft gin within the next five years. But the future isn’t likely to be that cruel, thankfully.

Like me, you probably thought that AI will take many years before it becomes truly creative. Obviously, we thought smugly, it will solve problems, produce huge reports, create spreadsheets and work alongside Jeff in those vast warehouses, but as for anything creative, it simply cannot understand the human condition.  And when it does we’re all shafted anyway, so there’s no point fretting. 

We were wrong.

Driving to Heathrow with my son yesterday we messed around with ChatGPT. Obviously, first up we asked it to write a few silly poems and limericks. It answers instantaneously. Some of them were hilarious, largely because the results appear so instantly, rhyme and rhythm intact, you can’t quite believe it’s happening. Next up, I asked it to write me a blog about AI. Here it is. Ok, so it’s a little dry but it would damn well sneak into LinkedIn without looking out of place, that’s a fact.

But our jaw dropping moment came after we asked it to write a poem about Roger a guitar playing squirrel. Within a few short minutes the poem blossomed into a screenplay for an entire musical. The AI suggested movie titles, merchandising ideas, marketing concepts, it wrote all the song titles and lyrics, it proposed the creation of a rival band of forest dwelling musicians, named all the characters, suggested a love interest (Samantha the squirrel) wrote a gentle ballad (to break up all the rockin’ melodies) designed the movie poster, the trailer, the tag line and even food concepts for the squirrel themed cafe in Roger’s theme park. No exaggeration, within twenty minutes we had a complete media franchise. And all this was possible within a month or so of launch. Imagine what it will be capable of in a year, five years, twenty-five years! We surely will not have to wait very long before it can instantly animate the entire musical. At least the credits will be short.

Oh, and if you have any doubts as to its musical talents Open AI has also developed a nifty little thing called Musenet that will write all the songs. Musenet is a bit like a digital Bill Bailey in that it can play Lady Gaga hits in the style of Mozart. Or Mozart hits in the style of Lady Gaga for that matter.

Pop culture, it seems, is pretty easy to emulate. From silly make believe musicals to modern pop ballads AI has decoded so many it innately understands how to construct something that will slip seamlessly into contemporary culture. And therein lies the challenge.

Governments think the answer is to retrain. But anything governments propose to retrain you as is surely already out of date. Others believe we should learn to become programmers, to stay one step ahead of the game. But that’s like learning how to build a typewriter when the computer arrived. No, the answer is staring us in the face.

When culture is so predictable, when films are focus grouped into mediocre uniformity, when music is formatted to homogeneity and when art has grown predictably political to the point of irrelevance then it’s for genuine, creative, living, breathing humans to dig deep and retaliate. The birth of AI is not a marker for surrender or throwing in the towel. AI is the starting pistol for a new wave of mould breaking, non formulaic creativity that celebrates our superiority here on planet Earth. Let the browbeaten retreat into the comfort of their self-made defeat. Human creativity will always push through. 

Don’t panic. A genuine renaissance is on the horizon.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily rants and light hearted banter

  Howard Saunders   Jan 03, 2023   Apple, culture   0 Comment   Read More

THE METACURSE

HOW ZUCKERBERG RUINED YOUR FUTURE

I’ve just returned from the Metaverse and it’s really crap. But what should I have expected from Mark Zuckerberg? He and his Silicon Valley cohort of censorious, screen-based lizards have spaffed $30 billion on a silly computer game that they believe is the future of humanity. It’s beyond laughable.

But he’s not alone. Amazon, Adidas, Microsoft, Google, Nike, PepsiCo, Walmart, almost every major corporation is investing billions in digital real estate like it’s the bloody gold rush, egged on by multi national consultants such as Accenture, who have entire departments dedicated to helping brands navigate the Metaverse. Or should I say, charging extortionate fees to categorically prove that the emperor is fully robed.

Only a couple of years ago the Metaverse sounded cool, a kind of digital nirvana: a place where we would escape reality for a couple of hours, be whoever we want to be, and roam freely in a universe free from the dirty, porn-infested internet. I do think this is a major part of its allure: now that the internet is full of rubbish, let’s start afresh with a 3D version! 

As you’ve probably heard, the term Metaverse was invented by Neal Stephenson for his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, to describe a virtual world in which to escape a dystopian Los Angeles plagued by hyperinflation and a killer virus. Prophecy indeed.

But now that your local plumber has a website in effect on the same digital shopping street as the likes of Nike and Louis Vuitton, big brands have pinned their hopes on the Metaverse as a kind of elitist internet, an immersive landscape where they can really show off. Such is their hubris they believe little consumers like you and me are so loyal we’ll happily immerse ourselves forever in their digital indulgences.

But instead of this new world evolving gently, brand by brand perhaps, Zuckerberg has jumped in feet first, changing the name of his company to show he means business and ready to spend $100 billion to convince us it’s the future. (As we’ve all become desensitized to big numbers, here’s some clarity: if you earn $100 dollars a day it would take you over 274 thousand years to save a hundred billion dollars. So you’d better get started.)

He’s spent about $30 billion to date and all he has to show for it is the deeply tragic Horizon Worlds, a Disneyfied, nineties-style computer game inhabited by grinning avatars that talk about kindness and instantly make you want to take a baseball bat to their legs…if they had any. (The avatars are legless because, it turns out, legs are tricky to animate). Throwing thirty billion dollars at the problem clearly wasn’t enough to drag his geniuses away from their meditation pods or personal baristas, though I bet Steve Jobs would have them dancing by now (as well as the avatars).

PEAK SMUG

Centuries from now, when alien archeologists unearth all 250 acres of Menlo Park with its eleven restaurants, games rooms, barbershop, eco-friendly dry cleaner, open air gas fires, on site therapists and fifteen art installations, they will surely roll all six eyes at mankind’s unbounded decadence. The Gehry HQ (MPK21) occupies twenty two acres alone, with a thirteen acre rooftop park for deep contemplation in between emails. Menlo Park is a living monument to the entitled. Peak smug, if you like. But Silicon Valley is at a turning point and must now prepare for decline: Meta’s shares slumped 25% this month and Mark’s ‘Metamates’ (cringe) are braced for a round of swingeing redundancies, specifically within Horizon Worlds. And Zuck is not alone. Both Amazon and Google are tightening their belts, reducing travel costs and restructuring in preparation for the recession while Musk’s first announcement at Twitter warned of massive job losses.

REALITY CHECK

Yes, real reality. Zuckerberg’s vision for the Metaverse is social, not commercial. I mean, what other excuse could there be for such a desperately unattractive avatar? Surely we can be a tad more imaginative in an escapist universe? Personally, I’m thinking more sixty foot, missile laden rhino than ugly Zuckling, but in which case how will the social dimension work? And besides, the whole headset thing makes it the expensive cousin of 3D TV, and we know what happened to that.

It does seem like it’s not thought through. If we’re anonymous in the Metaverse then anyone who’s played Grand Theft Auto knows exactly what follows (yes, you start driving over old ladies). And if we’re not anonymous then it’s likely to become an even more horrific ‘safe space’ where no one dares offend and, consequently, nothing of interest happens. Ever. 

Control versus freedom. You choose.

Truth is, you won’t need to. Zuckerberg’s multi-billion dollar pet project is doomed because, ultimately, everything he touches becomes uncool. Meanwhile, the superbrand led, commercial Metaverse will blossom into a giant digi-mall festooned with bespoke ads and promotions for the latest in rhino sneakers. Some nirvana that’ll be. But perhaps the biggest problem for these progressive brands is the fact that the hideous, floating torso of Mark Zuckerberg will forever haunt the corridors of that mall like a legless, cursed spirit. The Metaverse may well have been permanently Zucked.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily rants and light hearted banter

  Howard Saunders   Nov 03, 2022   Future, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

2042

No one knows what technological advances will be waiting for us in twenty year’s time but we do know that the planet has just emerged from one almighty global experiment…and the results are in: After two years of being locked up at home and having our ankles photographed by the Amazon driver every few days, we have learnt to appreciate the true value of our local shops. Turns out they are much more about community than simply getting  hold of essentials. Indeed, the local butcher, baker and even the candlestick maker are currently enjoying a much needed renaissance.

It seems we needed reminding that consuming in a vacuum is no replacement for getting out, engaging with the community and feeling alive, relevant and connected. (And if you want more evidence, Google the number of staff Amazon has shed since the tide turned only a few months ago). Two thousand years ago we would wander down to the Forum in our togas to buy bread, check out what’s new and maybe have a glass of wine with a friend. I confidently predict that in two thousand year’s time we’ll be doing something pretty similar. It’s strange how our visions of the future often eclipse our innate understanding of humanity.

So, we should expect to see an army of hungry, young, independent stores, delis, bars, take aways and pop ups on a mission to revive so many of our confused and listless town centres. And best of all, locally sourced product will return to the reborn market square.

Meanwhile, our cities will have followed a very different path. As centres of entertainment, as distinct from ‘shopping’, our major urban centres will become brand playgrounds. Stores will no longer need to ‘store’ things, nor necessarily display products tidily on shelves. Conventional ‘stores’ will be reborn as venues for brands to show off, seduce us and tell us why we should include them in our lives. ‘Stores’ will be replaced by ever-changing, immersive and interactive digital experiences. It will be the age of immersive storytelling. These brand playgrounds will help us determine which products are cool of course, but more importantly, which best align with our personal values. And, of course, they will know all about those since we carry them around on our smartphones. In the same way that our individual preferences shape our social media feeds today, digitally immersive spaces will shape the brand stories around us individually. Imagine how seductive it will be when we become central to a brand’s story. Once upon a time, marketeers talked of demographics, a tool that sketched an approximate picture of loose sections of the population. Egographics will enable AI to target you specifically. 

With delivery times getting quicker and quicker, could we see ourselves living in a world of instant delivery by 2042?

It’s worth remembering that this quest for ultra convenience – to the point of instant gratification – was kickstarted in the sixties with the arrival of the supermarket, labour saving gadgets and ready meals. So based on what we already know it seems that delivery times will continue to decrease as we increase the extent of AI into our lives. Predictive algorithms will offer us things we didn’t know we wanted or needed yet, while smart devices will quietly replenish essentials without us having to get involved at all.

However, instant gratification comes with a peculiar paradox: the more accessible something is, the less we value it. Consider how we value music today compared with thirty or forty years ago, now that it’s largely free and on tap absolutely everywhere. Therefore, as our priorities shift towards wanting sustainable products from simple supply chains, ultra convenience will come wrapped pretty heavily in guilt.

Convenience is a relative concept based upon how we value our time being spent across different activities. For example, the arrival of many hundreds of electric vehicle charging hubs across the country will create an exciting new platform for retailers and brands to entertain and sell to us while our cars are being charged. Only retail can magically transform this additional demand upon our time into a convenience. Perhaps we’ll come to see these hubs as the new Forums.

But the technology that’s most likely to satiate our relentless thirst for instant gratification is not a predictive algorithm, or even a swarm of delivery-ready drones hovering overhead. It’s the 3D printer. In simple terms, 3D printing democratises manufacturing, opening up incredible opportunities for independent designers in bedrooms and basements across the world to create products available for us to download anywhere. In 2042 you’ll be able to watch a designer in Seoul create, say, a bike or a guitar to your specification that you can download and assemble. It won’t be instant but it will eradicate distance instantly. And while we’re on the subject, imagine how the eradication of distance, complex supply chains and delivery will revolutionise your local high street. Now that’s an innovation worth waiting for!

Follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily insights and musings.

  Howard Saunders   Oct 12, 2022   Blog, Brand   0 Comment   Read More

WELCOME TO A NEW ERA

The new PM of GB is anointed by a Queen with only hours to live. Forty eight hours later a perfect rainbow arches across The Mall: images so dramatically poignant as to be verging on the mythical. I bet the writers of The Crown can’t believe their bloody luck. And so history is made and on a rainy Thursday afternoon a new era is born.

When Rishi was asked in the hustings to ‘name one public service that works well’ his answer could only be sarcastic. Left or right, we all know that government, local authorities, the Police, justice, education, transport, energy policy and the NHS have become sclerotic to the point of useless. We’re desperate for change and surely our opportunity must be now, as we hear the clunk of the zeitgeist shifting up a gear.

Decadence and complacency got us here. We daren’t heat our homes because we thought it was ok to rely on a mix of dictators and windmills for energy. We thought it was ok to import gas thousands of miles in diesel burning tankers, as long as we didn’t get blamed for the carbon. We watch armies of cranes constructing ‘sustainable’ buildings from glass, steel and concrete while we rinse our yogurt pots. We stop building reservoirs for the sake of the environment and then whine when they run dry after a fortnight of sunshine. We protest sexual objectification and then cavort ourselves silly on TikTok and Instagram. We bang saucepans proudly during lockdown but still curse like navvies while on hold for a doctor’s appointment. Blind to hypocrisy we lie to ourselves every day, every minute of the day from fear of alienation from polite society. We’re a living lie.

Old folks are expected to tut as the Progressive Train trundles by on its way to a future they won’t witness. But the young who cheer loudly as it gathers speed, shaking off its dusty past, have no idea where it’s heading. For much of its journey the Progressive Train had good, liberal-minded intentions but at the point we were told that punctuality is racist and schoolchildren should be free to identify as puppies, maybe we should have smelt a rat. Without old fashioned brakes, you see, the Progressive Train soon resembles the cartoon runaway version from Roadrunner, smashing everything in its path before plunging like a Slinky into the canyon below. That ain’t progress.

Young minds can be forgiven for thinking that because progress often demands the dismantling of tradition, it follows that the dismantling of tradition creates progress. Look where that got Chairman Mao. Similarly, just because truth can be a slippery fish it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to catch hold of the damn thing occasionally. Our once reliable mainstream media deliberately avoid news that doesn’t fit their narrative, and again, left or right, the majority of us know we’re being lied to most of the time. Omitting the full story is one thing but during the pandemic, it turns out, they actively demonised truth. That certainly ain’t progress.

Barely a year ago, questioning mask mandates and lockdowns would see you cancelled by the social media titans. Such totalitarian ‘kindness’ also saw otherwise intelligent, well-balanced adults harassing the unvaccinated and the sceptical with unhinged vitriol. Police arrested pensioners for sitting on park benches. ‘Friends’ and neighbours gleefully snitched on the non-compliant. Fights broke out in supermarkets over absent masks and toilet paper. These terrifying glitches in the natural order of the universe may be explained away by hysteria or mass formation, but they also gave us an invaluable glimpse into a dystopian future that none of us imagined could be so close.

Those of you who live outside the UK, or even staunch republicans who refused to be moved when the Queen had tea with Paddington, don’t think you’re exempt from our influence. We may be puny these days but we still pack a punch. British culture has wound itself like wisteria into billions of lives across the planet thanks largely to The Queen, The Beatles, JK Rowling, Shakespeare and, of course, Mr Bean.

History is organic, not linear, and just as the Georgian ‘free-love’ Romantics were the precursors to the mega-moral, industrious Victorians, perhaps we are finally turning our backs on the deconstructionists and their fantastical wokery to embrace the world of truth, logic and enterprise again. I certainly hope so. Our recent history will be wrapped and labelled soon enough but it sure feels like one almightily historic month. A month in which the future just took a screeching one-eighty.

This badly managed, rainy little island with no water suddenly has a new set of leaders clearly intent on a shake up as old school ties and school ma’amerisms have become de rigueur in Whitehall once again. Within a few short hours quick-draw Kwarteng christened his new broom by ousting an ‘exemplary’ mandarin, who was no doubt one of many human hurdles that have fetishised inertia into a fine art. If this last couple of weeks has taught us anything it’s that we can actually get our act together when we really want to. Bring it on, I say. Home grown energy, home dug reservoirs, reduced taxes and regulation, help for small business…why, the Carolean Age just might soften some of our home grown sclerosis. Of course we will grow to hate this lot as much as the last, but history draws its own lines in the sand once in a while and we’ve just crossed one. A future where independent shops and restaurants selling locally sourced product is coming to a high street near you sooner than you think. You never know, the good old stiff upper lip might even make a surprise return. (And no, not with a small black tash above it).

In a sense, the loss of the nation’s much loved Granny teaches us what most grannies teach us: that we are one tiny step in a long, long history, that families are central to our identity and wellbeing, that tradition gives us meaning, and that deeply held values live in our DNA and cannot be whitewashed away overnight.

Forever the short term pessimist but long term optimist, the era of truth, logic and enterprise could be just around the corner if we really want it. But we have to want it.

Follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily insights and musings.

  Howard Saunders   Sep 19, 2022   Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More