Beyond Digits - Voices in the Second Machine Age

Amazon’s unanticipated success with Echo – try getting hold of one at the moment! – has begun an interesting new line of thought based on the idea of “voice as a platform”. The argument goes that typing is a clumsy and clunky way of interfacing with machines, far inferior to just being able to talk in your natural voice to them. Perhaps, the logic suggests, typing will come to be seen as a brief and transitory period in the evolution of hominum ex machina.

In the next period of evolution – literally beyond digits – the sci-fi vision of Star Trek and Space Odyssey will come true. Although Spock does seem on occasion to type on his terminal, Kirk more often than not barks something into the ether and things seem to happen! Of course, Dave and Hal are on speaking terms – until the end! And Jarvis doesn’t wait for an email or a text to save Iron Man’s bacon, time and time again!

Maybe, one day, typing will become as rare as writing with a pen is now! Perhaps, like me, you can hardly write on paper nowadays at all; it seems so difficult, and tiring! I don’t think I’ve written more than 50 words on paper now for years. Would our 1st Grade teachers have imagined that 45 years ago?

The idea of voice as the dominant computer interface is gaining traction as the notion of “bots not apps” gains steam. In recent weeks, more and more of the tech illuminati have been road-testing their new vision of AI based services existing in the device agnostic cloud helping us do things such as tell someone we’re running late because of traffic, buy shoes we’ve seen in a road side advert from the train, or set up a new meeting to discuss an idea you’ve just thought of at the gym. All by simply speaking to Alexa, or Siri, or Dragon, or Amy, or Cortana, or M. Or by them doing it automatically for us.

Although in its infancy, this is an important trend; one to follow closely, methinks.

Before we all get too far into where this idea will go over the medium term though, there is an aspect of it which particularly tickles me. Namely the roll of “voice” in this potential new “era of voice”.

According to many studies (a recent one here the world’s favorite accent is British. (Now you can see where I’m going with this and why it tickles me!) By a very wide margin the British voice is regarded as numero uno (!) by folks north, south, east and west. In countries that have always been British allies, countries that have been opponents in war, and in countries that were former colonies. By everyone!!!

As a Englishman who’s lived in America for coming on 17 years now, the truth of this is something I’ve seen time and time again. When I came to the strange land of my dreams I had heard reports of Americans saying to random English strangers “gee, I love your accent” but dismissed them as ridiculous exaggerated clichés. But actually it happens all the time! My H&R Block tax preparer said it to me last month!

When I landed in San Francisco in the 1999 code rush, a wise Brit who had already been here 20 years whispered in my ear, “I’ve figured out there’s a 25% premium for having a British accent in America”. I took his advice to heart and though my lovely English rose sounds more and more like Anglo-American curio Loyd Grossman nowadays, I have maintained my received pronunciation with a vengeance! (My critics would probably suggest it accounts for 100% of the “success” I’ve had in America!)

So the question in my mind is what does this mean for the “British voice” when “voice” is the de facto way of working with our new machines? Is the accent of a voice more, or less, important? Given that we will presumably choose the voice that talks to us (as you can already in Waze will more people chose to have an English robot assistant (“Carson as a Service” as my colleague Rob Brown calls it!) or will they prefer to have Samantha at their beck and call?

If the English voice becomes the international “voice of business” as the English language has become the international “language of business”, presumably this conveys some advantage to England, non? (!) Or does the advantage diminish because of the software generated ubiquity of it? If kids in Shengzu or Lima or Dodama use the Jarvis setting on Echo does the allure of “Englishness” – that so captivated Loyd Grosman through the technology of plastic – draw them to favor the UK, culturally and economically, in ways that are both easy and hard to imagine? Or does “English” continue to mutate into “Globlish” with a diffusion of its power as its core DNA becomes harder and harder to trace?

What benefit or cost accrues to Englishman like me in this new global order? Reports from the Globlish front line suggest that English as a Foreign Language (EFL) speakers prefer speaking to other EFL speakers rather than “real” English speakers. Will their “accent interface” (i.e. an EFL type one) overtake the need for my “RP” version?

Though these may be somewhat abstract (and I imagine some thinking, trivial) notions, I do think there is something important at the heart of these considerations. As technology permeates every aspect of our world and our lives – in ways visible and invisible – through IoT, wearables, AR, and VR, the onus on manufactures and developers will be to adapt technology to suit people, not as has been the case for the initial waves of computing, for people to adapt to suit technology. Humanizing technology will be a critical differentiator between success and failure in the next generations of consumer and enterprise technology. The rise of “design thinking” is testament to this truth.

The voice – as one of the five primary senses – is therefore at the crux of this humanization. The voice interface on my Bavarian motor car is hardly human at all. But in time it will be and the commercial spoils will fall to those who can win this race.

What role “Englishness” plays in this is, I suppose, mainly interesting to Brits like me. But there are clues in these developments as to the shape “computing” will take in the Second Machine Age.

Until voice is superseded by “thought as a platform”. But that’s for another time!

From Digital to Hyper-Transformation

Machines can learn 24x7x365, can review massive volumes and continuous streams of data in milliseconds, and have the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.  This of course, enables a pace of learning far faster than anything us humans have ever witnessed or participated in.  What does this mean for digital transformation planning and prioritizing?  It means once machine learning has been implemented across core systems, the pace of learning will increase at extraordinary rates, and at scales beyond human’s capacity to absorb and act upon it. 

The bottleneck in the future will be humans’ inability to process new information, and change at the rate machine learning systems are delivering actionable data.  To solve these challenges, the reins of control will increasingly be turned over to machine learning systems capable of analyzing data, creating and running various models and test scenarios, and then acting on the results in digital-time.

Before moving on, let’s define machine learning.  Machine learning consists of algorithms that learn from and make predictions on data, and uncover "hidden insights" through analyzing and learning from historical relationships and trends in the data.  These algorithms operate by building models from example inputs in order to make data-driven predictions or decisions expressed as outputs, rather than following strict and static programming instructions. 

What does machine learning mean for businesses planning digital transformation initiatives today?  In our recent survey of over 2,000 executives, we found the biggest business impacts today come from SMAC (social, mobile, analytic and cloud) and IoT related technologies.  Business impacts from these technologies are expected to double over the next 3.5-years.  We call this the first wave of digital transformation.

As impressive as the first wave of digital transformation is and will be from now through year 2020, the 2nd wave, which we call the Age of Hyper-Transformation, will triple and even quadruple its impact on businesses by 2025. The Age of Hyper-Transformation will occur as a result of adding the following technologies to the list and exploiting their business value:

  • IoT/Sensors (continuing)
  • Digital currency
  • Artificial intelligence/Machine Learning
  • Telepresence technology (Skype, FaceTime, Hangouts, etc.)
  • Robotic Process Automation (software)
  • Biotechnology
  • Robots (that manipulates physical objects)
  • Nanotechnology
  • Telematics
  • Wearables
  • GIS (geospatial information systems)
  • Blockchain
  • Virtual Reality
  • 3D Printing

The Age of Hyper-Transformation utilizes the innovations delivered in the first wave of digital transformation, matures them, and then overlays automation, robotics, intelligence and machine learning.   It is during the Age of Hyper-Transformation when the operational tempo of businesses is beyond human-time, and well into the warp speed of digital-time.  It is during this age, that human managers will increasingly become the overlords of automation, artificial intelligence and algorithms.

Stay tuned for my upcoming report on digital transformation, innovations and key technologies.

  1. Believers, Non-Believers and Digital Transformation
  2. Forces Driving the Digital Transformation Era
  3. Digital Transformation Requires Agility and Energy Measurement
  4. A Doctrine for Digital Transformation is Required
  5. The Advantages of Advantage in Digital Transformation
  6. Digital Transformation and Its Role in Mobility and Competition
  7. Digital Transformation - A Revolution in Precision Through IoT, Analytics and Mobility
  8. Competing in Digital Transformation and Mobility
  9. Ambiguity and Digital Transformation
  10. Digital Transformation and Mobility - Macro-Forces and Timing
  11. Mobile and IoT Technologies are Inside the Curve of Human Time

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Believers, Non-Believers and Digital Transformation

Digital transformation is a revenue growth engine according to fifty futurists we surveyed.  Many companies are already experiencing significant benefits and gaining competitive advantages.  The futurists predicted the top five impacts of digital transformation on businesses by the year 2020 will be:

  1. Speed to market
  2. Competitive positioning
  3. Revenue growth
  4. Productivity
  5. New distribution channels 

Given the importance of these top-five on revenue growth and the future success of a business, who would not want to digitally transform their enterprise?  Non-believers that’s who.  Non-believers, aka laggards, in our study of 2,000 executives don’t believe in significant digital transformation now, or in the future.  They don't demonstrate a sense of urgency or a recognition of the massive changes happening around them today.  They seem blind to the fact companies are witnessing an increase in revenue already from their digital transformation investments.

Digital transformation-believers aka digital leaders, however, are investing significantly more now, and receiving positive ROIs on their investments already.  As a result, they plan to invest greater amounts in the future, and predict higher ROIs in the future relative to non-believers.

Based on our survey data, believers and non-believers are seeing alternative realities.  Non-believers, if they don't quickly become converts, are going to face increasing challenges staying competitive and relevant against digitally transformed competitors. 

When we asked mid-level managers to list the top 10 mistakes companies are making regarding digital transformation today, they listed the following in order of rank:

  1. Moving too slowly
  2. Lack of clear digital strategy
  3. Company has the wrong leadership for digital transformation
  4. Investing too little in new technology
  5. Not focusing enough on cyber-security
  6. Culture that discourages innovation
  7. Lack organizational structures to drive digital transformation
  8. Ignoring fresh thinking from external sources
  9. Not educating the entire organization on digital transformation
  10. Neglecting to hire the right digital talent

This list describes the actions or non-actions we are seeing from non-believing companies.  

Let’s pull all our findings together and review once again:

  • Futurists see digital transformation as a revenue growth engine
  • Believers are already reporting positive ROIs, and as a result, plan even higher levels of investment and revenues in the future.
  • Non-believers are investing little today, seeing little ROI, and are planning relatively little investment in digital transformation in the future.
  • Mid-level managers report the biggest challenges are moving too slowly, a lack of a clear strategy, wrong leadership and too little investment in new technologies.
  • The revenue gap between what believers and non-believers predict in the future as a result of digital transformation is significant across all industries.  

Survey participants believe the bulk of the revenue gains will be achieved by the year 2020, with incremental gains continuing thereafter.  That is only 3.5 years from now. Yikes! That reflects a view that more revenue is available now for fast movers.  It also suggests a realization that a lot of work needs done quickly.  Non-believers, because of inaction and/or a lack of investment, seem likely to miss out on these early revenue gains and will suffer competitively.

Businesses must invest the time and effort now to understand the impact of digital transformation on their industry, market and company.  Once there is situational awareness achieved and a clear vision articulated, a digital transformation doctrine needs to be developed and socialized so strategies can be developed to achieve the vision set forth in the doctrine.

What technologies should believers invest in over the next 3.5 years to achieve digital transformation?  In the opinions of over 2,000 survey participants the largest business impacts will come from the following technologies:

  1. Big data/business analytics
  2. Cyber-security
  3. Cloud
  4. Collaboration technologies
  5. Mobile technologies
  6. IoT/sensors
  7. Artificial intelligence
  8. Digital currency
  9. Sharing economy
  10. Social Media 

When asked for year 2025 predictions, survey participates anticipate a similar list, but with even higher business impacts from each.

It is interesting that core systems like ERPs, CRMs, HCMs and SCMs were not identified as driving high business impact.  I am wondering if companies still view digital transformation as "add-on" technology?  In my view, a business' ability to convert from "human-time" to "digital-time" and operate at a real-time operational tempo requires digital transformation across the entire ILS (information logistics system).  The ILS is the master or umbrella system that manages and processes data across the entire organization to optimize business performance and customer interactions.  This ILS system includes all the core systems that today, often involve legacy systems incapable of supporting the new world of digital-time.  It is my analysis that many companies will ultimately be required to replace legacy core systems in order to accomplish true digital transformation.

If you find yourself sitting in IT and business meetings every week listening to how existing legacy IT systems will not permit new business processes, new business services, new business models and new innovations required to compete and win, then you should recognize those are red flags and things can get ugly, quickly.

When the New Year’s ball drops at midnight and year 2020 comes around, will you be found among the believers?  Stay tuned for my new report on digital transformation technologies and strategies.

  1. Forces Driving the Digital Transformation Era
  2. Digital Transformation Requires Agility and Energy Measurement
  3. A Doctrine for Digital Transformation is Required
  4. The Advantages of Advantage in Digital Transformation
  5. Digital Transformation and Its Role in Mobility and Competition
  6. Digital Transformation - A Revolution in Precision Through IoT, Analytics and Mobility
  7. Competing in Digital Transformation and Mobility
  8. Ambiguity and Digital Transformation
  9. Digital Transformation and Mobility - Macro-Forces and Timing
  10. Mobile and IoT Technologies are Inside the Curve of Human Time