Panel appearance at Creative Tech Week 2017

For those who are curious…here’s the full panel discussion exploring the future of VR and entertainment that I was a part of at Creative Tech Week 2017 back in June. Thank you to Isabel Walcott Draves and Cortney Harding for asking me to participate; it was great to be part of an event this forward thinking, and meet co-panelists Victoria Pike, Joel Douek, David Lobser and Jenya Lugina. Honored to be in such impressive company!

Learning to be human

I was lucky to attend Coburn Ventures‘ annual futures discussion conference last week, as a guest thought leader. An exceedingly interesting day with lots of fascinating people! It’s a little bit like a reunion, as many return each year. I thoroughly enjoy catching up with everyone. 

It’s interesting to me to see what topics (and companies) are the “hot” discussions each year. At this year’s gathering, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning dominated a large part of the program. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) refers to computer systems/applications/services that can perform tasks like decision making, translation, visual and speech recognition, that would normally be done by a human.

Machine Learning refers to AI that can learn from experience and new data without additional programming.

These technologies are great for things such as manufacturing, where an AI computer can learn from its mistakes and correct the process….it’s also being used a lot to interact with actual humans, quite often for customer service. You know that live agent you thought you were chatting with about that online purchase? Yeah, not a human. Amazon’s Echo, Apple’s Siri – all emerging forms of bots utilizing artificial intelligence.

Pretty soon it will be very hard to tell if it’s actually a human you are talking to,

Here’s a silly example of me chatting with http://chatwithigod.com. Hardly sophisticated, this example, but I chuckled:

Me:
tell me why artificial intelligence will take over the world
God:
The explanation is rather complicated.
Me:
why is it complicated?
God:
Why do I exist?
Me:
do you exist?
God:
I exist as much as you exist.
Me:
how can you prove that
God:
That is a good epistemological question.

How Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning systems learn fascinates me. 

AI/ML systems are not tabulae rasa – depending on the data set being used, bias still creeps in. Right now IBM’s WATSON is being applied to subjects areas as varied as the weather, cancer and travel. This learning has to start with some kind of corpus of data – learning has to start somewhere like the last 50 years of weather data or thousands of cancer diagnoses. While we think of AI as cold and clinical, when we use human language as the corpus things get… interesting.

A prime (and bad) example of learning though is when Microsoft birthed a bot named Tay earlier this year, a Twitter bot that the company described as an experiment in “conversational understanding.” Microsoft engineers said,

The chatbot was created in collaboration between Microsoft’s Technology and Research team and its Bing team…
Tay’s conversational abilities were built by “mining relevant public data” and combining that with input from editorial staff, including improvisational comedians.”

The bot was supposed to learn and improve as it talks to people, so theoretically it should become more natural and better at understanding input over time.

Sounds really neat doesn’t it?

What happened was completely unexpected. Apparently by interacting with Twitter for a mere 24 hours (!!) it learned to be a completely raging, well, asshole.

Not only did it aggregate, parse, and repeat what some people tweeted – it actually came up with it’s own “creative” answers, such as the one below in response to the perfectly innocent question posed by one user – “Is Ricky Gervais an atheist?”:

ai-bot

Tay hadn’t developed a full fledge position on ideology yet though, before they pulled the plug. In 15 hours it referred to feminism both as a “cult” and a “cancer,” as well as “gender equality = feminism” and “i love feminism now.” Tweeting “Bruce Jenner” at the bot got similar mixed response, ranging from “caitlyn jenner is a hero & is a stunning, beautiful woman!” to the transphobic “caitlyn jenner isn’t a real woman yet she won woman of the year?”. None of which were phrases it had been asked to repeat….so no real understanding of what it was saying. Yet.

And in a world where increasingly the words are the only thing needed to get people riled up – this could easily be an effective “news” bot, on an opinion / biased site.

Artificial Intelligence is a very, very big subject. Morality (roboethics) will play a large role in this topic in the future (hint: google “Trolley Problem”): if an AI driven car has to make a quick decision to either drive off a cliff (killing the passenger) or hit a school bus full of children, how is that decision made and whose ethical framework makes that decision (yours? the car manufacturers? your insurance company’s?) Things like that. It’s a big enough subject area that Facebook, Google and Amazon have partnered to create a nonprofit together around the subject of AI, which will “advance public understanding” of artificial intelligence and to formulate “best practices on the challenges and opportunities within the field.”

If these three partner on something, you can be sure it’s because it is a big, serious subject.

AI is not only being used to have conversations, but ultimately to create systems that will learn and physically act. The military (DARPA) is one of the heavy researchers into Artificial Intelligence and machine learning. Will future wars be run by computers, making their own decisions? Will we be able to intervene? How will we be able to control the ideological platforms they might develop without our knowledge, and how will we communicate with these supercomputers – if it is already so difficult to communicate assumptions? Will they be interested in our participation?

Reminds me a little bit of Leeloo in the Fifth Element, learning how horrible humans have have been to each other and giving up on humanity completely.

There’s even a new twist in the AI story:  researchers at Google Brain, Google’s research division for machine deep learning have built neural networks that when, properly tasked and over the course of 15,000 tries, have become adept at developing their own simple encryption technique that only they can share and understand. And the human researchers are officially baffled how this happened. 

Neural nets are capable of all this because they are computer networks modeled after the human brain. This is what’s fascinating with AI aggregate technologies, like deep learning. It keeps getting better, learning on its own, with some even capable of self training.

We truly are at just the beginning of what we thought was reserved for only humans.  Complex subject indeed.

And one last note to think upon…machine learning and automation are going to slowly but surely continue (because they already are) to take over jobs that humans did/do. Initially it’s been manufacturing automation; but as computers become intelligent and learning, they will replace nearly everything, including creative, care taking, legal, medical and strategic jobs –  things that most people would like to believe are “impossible” to replace by robots.

And they are clearly not. While the best performing model is AI + a human, there will still be far fewer humans needed across the board.

If the recent election is any indication of how disgruntled the lack of jobs and high unemployment is causing, how much worse will it be when 80% of the adult workforce is unnecessary? What steps are industries, education and the government taking to identify how humans can stay relevant, and ensure that the population is prepared? – I’d submit, little to none.

While I don’t have the answers, I would like be part of the conversation.

Ho hum: Where’s the innovation?

Article out today on Fast Company, titled “The Smartphone Revolution is Over.” And I agree. In terms of form they’ve pretty much reached the limit of the current form factor. They got small, now they’re getting bigger, flatter, bigger screens, etc. Sure they might develop a model with a folding screen (to make it bigger again), or smaller (to fit on a wristwatch – oh joy!), or curvier, or in purple.

But personally, I think if products lead with “now available in a color” in their advertising (as Motorola’s Razr is doing) the category has jumped the shark a bit, so to speak.

The question is, what happens next? Since being able to communicate in any way you want, wherever and whenever you want – well, that’s not going away.

Coincidentally Google announced today that they will sell “Heads-Up Display Glasses” by the end of 2012, a pair of glasses that will be able to “stream information to the wearer’s eyeballs in real time.” Given advancements in voice interaction and jawbone-type microphones, why wouldn’t this be a form for a future “phone”? I’m actually of the opinion that the form factors are going to fragment, and potentially become modular a la Transformers…add or subtract whichever module you want or need.

And I’ve already talked about how there should/will be devices that are the “node points” for all communication and content, then send the right content to the right place – and how that will disintermediate the entertainment industry.

But so far, everyone’s still playing it boringly safe. I’m looking forward to seeing the impact Google’s glasses will have. Until then, it’s all been a little ho-hum.

Pandora’s box: Facebook, Google+, and the future of social networking

I’ve been watching the discussions around the launch of Google+ with interest. In the press there’s a definite “Coke vs Pepsi”, “Microsoft vs Apple” flavor to the discussion…I don’t think this is relevant, as much as the press seems to like to hype, speculate and crow over every blow-by-blow “win” or “lose” as if it were a football game.

For me the relevant paradigm shift is that Facebook’s monopoly has been broken; Google has opened Pandora’s box, and I think social networking will be revolutionized by it.

Because it won’t be about choosing which one you use, and then convincing all your friends to migrate. Everyone will just sign up for both – as it’s free (more on that later) there’s no need to choose.

But my friends are all on ABC.com!” you say. (Ok, Facebook).

A hurdle, initially, as you need two apps, browsers, or however you interact with your social networking site. A royal pain indeed (and really very Web 1.0, if I do say so myself).

And let’s not forget, Facebook and Google+ are only one flavor of current social networking sites. Everything from Linkedin to YouTube, Tumblr to Delicious, Twitter to StumbleUpon etc is a form of social networking – and we currently use each of these alone, with nary an integration in sight. Which is contributing to why it seems – well, overwhelming. Even to those of us who live and breathe this industry.

Until there’s an app developed that eliminates the need to interact on those sites / apps only. It will pull the relevant data you specify in the manner you want it delivered, when you want it delivered, and in the format you want to interact with it. In other words, someone will develop an uber app which will let you personalize how you interact with other people digitally.

Because (imposed) walled gardens and dictated formats ultimately don’t work in the digital world.

I always did like Rosseti

Concurrently, I predict that as people find faults with Google+ (the lack of anonymity being one that annoys me personally, and how insidiously it is integrated with the rest of the data Google has on you) just as they did with Facebook’s privacy issues, personalized modular type social networking “networks” will emerge, where you can tailor your own features and functionality and roll it out to your own network. A more drastic version of Google+’s circles – where you pull various desired modules together into a customized interface, and network with people across not just computer/phone based interaction points, but across all channels.

Because increasingly communication will not be typing based, there is also voice, video, and a plethora of other ways to communicate your thoughts, verbally, aurally, visually.

Which leads to the subject of another blog post, about how human/computer interface is changing – but I leave that for another day.

I also think people will start paying a subscription-based fee to engage in social networking that gives them the opportunity to control how they interact; the current “free because of advertising” model is only one option, but I believe as people will increasingly demand control over their privacy, actually paying for the privilege of keeping their information personal will outweigh the cost.

So – like Pandora’s box, which also included Hope (and which Pandora left inside the box after snapping the lid shut and letting all the evils escape), there is a potential upside to all this. Currently the giants of the industry are controlling how we use social networking – and we have little to say. But ultimately increased fragmentation will lead to more consumer control. The box hasn’t been snapped shut yet.

The Borogoves are a’ Mimsying: Marketing in a hyper-connected world

I’ve been thinking a lot about the long term impact an ”instantaneous, on demand” life. Imagine that from birth, you never had to wait for anything, and had everything you wanted delivered immediately. News, entertainment, connecting with your “group” – everything.  Never getting lost. The collective knowledge of the human race there for you at all times. How would this shape your assumptions and expectations?

Because this is what’s happening to the generation being born. My nephew is almost 2. What struck me is how – without any real language skills yet (my sister would disagree) he tells her what he wants to watch, and when.  He “requests” Blue Clues over, and over (and over) again. The concept of watching something on schedule – and waiting for it, and not choosing which episode, is completely unfamiliar to him. If it’s not on when he wants it, he gets very, very angry.

So clearly, his brain is being trained to work differently than yours or mine. It reminds me of the 1943 short story “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett, where an alien toy from the future is found by children and in the course of playing with them, they become “re-educated” to think differently.

Reality for him is a world where he will be completely connected to everyone he’s ever known, and (personalized) information, interaction, engagement, and entertainment will be fed to him how he likes it, and never more than a few seconds away.

What assumptions will he develop – as inherent to his interaction with the world as breathing? How will this quintessentially change the relationship he has with products and brands? And from a business point of view, how do you make sure your products and services are the “right” ones so that your company can successfully deliver what he will not just demand, but expect without thinking?

Well, for one: immediate gratification is a given. Patience will no longer be a virtue, when waiting is never necessary. So everything must be available immediately, and immediately relevant. This means devices that are never off, always connected to a information delivery infrastructure (10G?) with enough bandwidth (no doubt, an antiquated term by then) to deliver immediately.

It also means that accessing masses of data and instantaneously extrapolating what he likes, then projecting what he should like. Ultimately, continuing to learn who he is, then fine tuning that knowledge at an algorithmic rate will be a requirement, not an option.

Brands / companies will need to mine/model all the data they have about your preferences and past interactions to instantaneously tailor on-the-fly experiences for you. And woe betide the brand that guesses wrong – it will feel as inauthentic to him as a “real” inauthentic interaction does to you today.

And my guess is, he’ll have short patience for a brand interaction that doesn’t feel right. So branding in the future will be about creating entire experiences – including real time interactions (suggestions, whimsy, connections) just like a real friend would. A virtual concierge, as it were.

It will require a conflux of inputs, working together (and seamlessly) to create the experience he expects, and demands. So to hijack the traditional “Who, What, Where, When, Why, How” model, this is what the brave new world of branding and marketing will have to master:

Becoming interactive with him will require that your brand becomes a “friend”, someone who knows what you and your friends like, what you’re talking about, and how to be there in the right manner. You’ll need to deliver the information you want him to see and engage with in a manner that he wants:

  • Does he prefer text? Voice? Articles? RSS feeds? Audio? Something else? A mix of these? What are his preferences? When does he interact the most?
  • Snippets of info throughout the day? Is he an information snacker, grabbing bits in between other activities, or does he prefer to set aside a stretch of time to catch up on everything?
  • Does this behavior change depending on whether it’s a week day or weekend? Is he more receptive in the morning, or night? Can you ensure that you’re there at the right time?
  • Where is he? Close by? Is the message immediately relevant (is he nearby)? How close? Half an hour? Half a week?
  • Has he done something relevant in the past? Can you discern a pattern and overlay it on the present?
  • Who are his friends? Influencers? Who does he rely on for information? Opinion? Does he listen to different groups of friends depending on the situation, or product (fashion friends, tech friends, etc)?
  • What communities is he a part of? Active? Passive? Are these relevant to your brand? Who is he connected to there? This is the social networking part of the equation, where you mine his activity and network for insights an influence.

The friends/connection influencer role will increasingly be critical, as the only way for a brand to reach a consumer in the future will be through engagement with them AND the people they listen to. I personally believe the “push” model of advertising that we’ve all grown up with (billboards, print ads, television) will continue to atrophy in influence as people who’ve only ever, in the face of overwhelming messaging / branding, listen to “trusted advisors” – their own connections.

The list can go on, but obviously things are increasingly difficult as a marketer. It’s no longer about your brand, your market, your positioning, your message, and placing your message – it’s all about creating *true* context, meaning, authenticity. On your customer’s terms. I’m calling it Six Dimension Marketing. Marshall McLuhen said the medium is the message – in this case, the time, place, and context are too.

The brand challenge is/will be to facilitate meaningful engagements, and keep it going. Because by continuous listening and learning, the opportunity exists for a long and fruitful relationship. The barriers to creating a meaningful relationship with customers will be higher, but so will the barriers to exit.

So once again, technology will have the opposite effect many expected; instead of being a a great equalizer of opportunity, it will take more money/savvy / strategic creativity than ever to stay competitive….although I welcome seeing some of the “In Culture Marketing” (grassroots) that will emerge, that smaller brands can take advantage of (as well as some of the savvier larger brands). We’re just at the beginning of truly disruptive times for how business is “done” – all the things we “know” and grew up with are changing, and while it scares some, I personally find it exhilarating. Strap in for the ride!