This May Be the Second Machine Age - But it's Still a Barbara Streisand World

As a minor representative of the Earth bound, life based form, commonly known as a “human being,” I think a lot – perhaps too much! – about what us humans will end up being in world full of very clever machines. One doesn’t have to be too far to the lunatic fringe of the “we’re all doomed” camp to be somewhat concerned that when Watson, or Alexa, or Siri, or Amy, or M, or Atlas, or Baxter or their grandchildren can pack a box quicker than me, create a sales forecast quicker and better than me, drive a car quicker and better and more safely than me, and write a novel more creatively rich than me (as well as more quickly, better, and safer; safer? – well, it’s unlikely that a “novelbotist” will be a drunk or a serial philanderer or a junkie!), we – that’s you and me mate – face a bit of an uphill battle to remain not surplus to requirements.

Given all of this, and given that my beat is sniffing out postcards sent from the unevenly distributed future, I’m always heartened when I come across something that we humans can interpret as a ray of hope! “Hey kids, we’re not moving to the bunker in Boise yet! I’ve got an idea ...”

The latest source of my irrational optimism? This; the “unstore” ... You back? Great! The “unstore” is a recognition that bricks are increasingly losing the battle against clicks and that competing against Amazon is leaving more and more brick based players wandering deliriously in circles in the rainforest.

Not letting a good (exponentially accelerating) crisis go to waste, the “unretailers” are re-conceptualizing the role of physical space in the process of selling. When somebody can buy something – anything – from the 5.5 inches of Gorilla Glass they’re holding in their hand, what do we do with our 15,000 square feet on The Avenue of the Americas or our 45,000 square feet at the Turfland Mall, in Lexington, Kentucky?

Well, the answer that’s blowing in the wind seems to be to perform what we might think of as corporate jujitsu! Take your opponents strength and use that against them, and use your weakness to your own advantage.

In the current retail mano a mano, the “clicks’” strength - price, speed, efficiency, not having to put pants on – is seemingly all. But newly togged in white pajamas and a belt colored black the “bricks” are fighting back.

At the heart of this new phase of the battle is the simple recognition that though this may be the Second Machine age this is still a Barbara Streisand world. We human beings like other human beings. Though we all may have our “Satreian” moments – “hell is other people” (mine come particularly in the TSA line!) – we all basically want to be in “human hands”. We all want a human experience.

So the question now becomes what makes a great human experience and how does a great human experience in a world of Dash (hopefully not a world of Daesh) reassert itself.

The unstore is showing that the answer to this is the human touch; we want to touch things and we want to be touched. We want to pick the merchandise up, we want to try things on, we want to ask “how does it work?”, and “why did it do that?” We want to sit on it, listen to it, read it, argue about it with our wives. We want to see experts use it. We want to see cool people rock it. We want to waste an afternoon dreaming about it. We want to go back week after week and think, “one day”. We want the blue shirts to listen to us, to laugh at our quips, to keep chatting longer than seems normal. We want to sit in a comfy chair with a latte and be pleasantly surprised that nobody seems to mind that we’ve been there all day – with only one latte. We want to watch videos and see demos and get help and be advised. We want to take the merchandise back and get it fixed or upgraded or exchanged or customized or refreshed or accessorized. We want to hang ... with other people ... with other people that need people.

Then we want to go home, and on the way in the car, buy the thing we’ve been checking out online and have it shipped to us overnight!!!

In short the unstore is place to check things out without checking them out.

The unstore builds on a number of trends that have been developing for some time;

  • Music concerts used to be loss leaders to sell records; now streaming is a loss leader to get people to come to concerts.
  • The speaking circuit for stand up corporate (often not very) stand-up comedians – er, I mean, presenters - used to be a loss leader to sell books; now books are a loss leader to get stand up gigs (at the high Clintonesque end, often going at $100K, 200K a pop).
  • Museums used to advertise their collections and mention in passing they had nice dining facilities; now they’re “ace cafes with quite nice museums attached”
  • Bookstores introduced coffee bars to encourage customers to linger longer; now cool cafes have books on sale to go with your skinny flat white.

In this new Omni channel, hybrid mash up, of bricks and clicks, being human is an advantage again. As long as your humans can be human and you can put the experience in customer experience.

Of course, the first computers were humans but it’s all too common an experience today that we go into a big box store and the humans seem like robots. And the experience is hardly an experience at all. (Those of you paying attention at the back will recall that I’ve written at length about this before In the land that popularized and perfected the art of customer service the evenly distributed present seems full of the exact opposite at the moment – customer disservice

The unstore reintroduces the idea of the “enthusiast” – John Cusack in High Fidelity, the Click and Clack garage in Cambridge, the undiscovered writers working the tills at the Strand bookstore in NYC - people who love their subject and love sharing that love with other people.

The people working at the Samsung store, or Bonobos, or Warby Parker, or Tory Burch, or in the aforementioned blue shirts, are people who are “into it”; who are “loving it” (not many of those at the home of the place of “loving it” I’d hazard a guess) and who are central to the “experience” that people are flocking to experience. They’re sharing their enthusiasm and excitement and pride on being “in the gang”. They’re not “selling” in a traditional self. In fact, they’re the human based version of the online “always be recommending” algorithm.

Every organization that operates in physical “space” is facing some version of this same “bricks v clicks”/”bods v bots” dilemma. And unsurprisingly there have been some amusing/ugly (depending on your perspective) steps along the way trying to deal with it. The café in a bank mélange is my particular favorite! The skinny flat white instantly turns into a cup of coffee with milk next to an ATM!

This misstep is actually quite instructive though; the bank has sort of got the memo but the memo got scrambled as it went through the business as usual machine (commonly referred to the capital expenditure approval budget meeting).

Rather than the existing branch being reconfigured so there’s a forth rate café sitting where the tellers, and the desks, and the safe used to be, the space could be reconfigured so there’s a nice lounge, and kitchen, and meeting rooms, and phone booths, and video displays, and TVs, and office equipment, all sitting there available for people to use when they come in to talk to the bank’s humans – their experts, their advisors, their counsellors, their coaches, their shoulders to cry on, their enthusiasts. The branch could be re-conceptualized as a place where people can come and have a human experience, centered around a very human need, i.e. the need for financial security and financial health. Dealing with people who are enthusiastic with helping you deal with your human needs.

Writ large, bank branches could become co-working spaces a la WeWork; centers of new growth in local communities. They could be places where the Chambers of Commerce meet; where VC’s hang to tap into the new ideas. Where Maker Fairs are held; where the successful send the elevator back down.

Oh, and, discretely, in the corner, there could be a small ATM. Just in case an old-timer wanders in for some cash.

A bank branch could be a “unbranch”; in a world where the most popular branch is the one people are holding in the palm of their human hands and where Betterment are only a tap away.

If you’re still wondering what a bank branch re-energized could look like, this might give you a better idea

Given that Silicon Valley isn’t coming to financial services is already here these issues are now longer merely theoretical ones for banks sitting on huge swathes of underutilized and depreciating assets but in fact existential questions that need practical answers. Today.

I started off this piece by suggesting that “unstores” were signs of hope for humanity! I’ll end it by suggesting that the “un” movement is a sign of hope for bankers too! Ouch! Cheap shot! But I couldn’t resist! Don’t take it personally fellas!

The “un” movement repositions people at the core of the “experience” - in whatever area; banking, retailing, teaching, etc, etc – that people want. People want to bank online, buy online, research online, entertain themselves online. Do everything online. But people want to be with people. People they like. People that impress them. People that they learn from. People that – if you want to get “corporatey” about it – “add value”. This might explain why Amazon themselves are opening stores and why Macy’s is undergoing reconstructive surgery

In the future people probably won’t add much value adding things, or moving things, or doing things. But people will still be able to add lots of value in inefficient, creative, cool, stupid, funny, odd, exciting, unpredictable ways; “how does it feel on?”, “this is how you get it to do this”; “hmmm, that’s a great question – this is how I’d do it”; “nah, I think the v7.2 is way cooler than the v7.1”. Ways that are hard to quantify, and measure, and optimize on a spreadsheet, but are really the future of every body’s work. Be you a banker or an AI agent natural language coder.

Finally (yes, finally, I hear you sigh), this notion of re-assessing the value of wildly inefficient humans in a machine age is riffed on here by Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly and I think the Sage of Pacifica is onto something; what I call the “Tokyo Hotel Model” - Japanese hotels seem oddly overstaffed in comparison with hotels in London or New York etc – is central to re-conceptualizing the role people play in the future of work.

People want great prices. But people want great people based experiences too. The “un” model perhaps unlocks a previously seemingly unlockable conundrum. Don’t automate humans away. Hire them to be human. Not second rate robots.

Why it is Critical for Leaders to Grow Their Digital Presence

Market pundits keep telling you that every business is a digital business. Digital is your future and the path to transform the business. When so much is at stake, shouldn’t be leaders growing their digital presence? Our latest whitepaper highlights that many business leaders are not on LinkedIn, and most of them are yet to open a Twitter account. Another report reveals that 70% of Fortune 500 CEOs do not have a social presence themselves. In Australia, a 2015 survey found four CEOs of the top 20 publicly listed companies have a Twitter account.

We call this attitude the “lack of time syndrome” as leaders feel they have more strategic tasks to fulfill than managing their tweets. “Digital thinking” must be injected into a company’s core, and that extends to the social media presence of the company’s leaders. However, the failure to fix or expand their digital presence will impact the future of their own role and business. The personal participation in the digital realm is the key to understanding the digital consumer’s state of mind and unlocking digital’s real value. Not a surprise that more than half of the companies surveyed for our report agreed that they do not have a clear, shared vision of digital transformation which is well-communicated and understood throughout the organization.

Leaders need not to become digital experts neither we are suggesting it. But, they need to take their ideas and transform them with the power of digital simply to jettison old habits and paradigms, with the goal of leading a digital-first company. It’s time to say goodbye to analog leadership. The biggest issue here is organizational complacency, resistance to change and an ability to recognize the urgent need to change. Senior leadership must stop asking their teams to just “fix the problem” and instead ask them to “fix their digital quotient.” By communicating the digital vision clearly, leaders can ensure the entire company is marching in one direction — building digital at the core of the business.

DBS Bank in Singapore has taken a different route to developing future-ready digital leaders. As part of its DBS MegaHackathon initiative, the bank’s employees are encouraged to create new apps, processes and prototypes by collaborating with relevant startups to tackle business and societal challenges. The organization has already changed the mindset of hundreds of business leaders throughout the bank, which aims to impart digital thinking to every DBS employee before the end of 2016.

So, what should be the first step? Improve the company-wide digital quotient? I think undertaking a digital leadership assessment across the organization, including the board and the CEO, to understand the current state of digital leadership, and act accordingly.

What’s your take on the digital presence of leaders? Is it essential for them grow their digital presence to win in the “digital-first” world?.

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The Future of Questions

Computers are useless; they can only give you answers”. Pablo Picasso

For anyone paying attention – as I know, dear reader, you are – you’ll have no doubt noticed that the debate about artificial intelligence is becoming almost as intense – almost – as the US Presidential campaign.

Every day new articles, new movies, new TV shows, new conferences, new books, appear, warning us that the robots are coming. The latest recent gathering of the global socio-economic elite, in Davos – Woodstock en Piste – majored on the role of AI in the “4th Industrial Revolution” and the impact AI will have on the future of jobs. If there was a Sypder Index Fund tracking AI commentary (traded algorithmically, naturally – pun intended) it would be worth stuffing into your 401k.

There are, of course, many similarities between the AI debate and the political one; both are really, as the WEF recognized, about the future of work; how to get work, how to secure work, what work fundamentally is, in an age where code can do more and more things that humans have traditionally traded for money. And both are examining the nature of artificially; “authenticity” versus “political expediency” is a central tenant of the political race; “wetware” versus “software” is core in the race against the machine.

And just as in the political debate, the loudest, most extreme voices seem, at present, to be capturing most of the oxygen in the room. For Trump and Sanders in politics, read Kurzweil and Musk in AI. For Ray Kurzweil the singularity is near. For Elon Musk, AI represents “our greatest existential threat”.

As per usual your humble correspondent can see both sides of the argument. (In my defense your honor, I present F.Scott Fitzgerald’s famous words, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”). On the one hand it’s not hard to imagine that the offspring of the computer that won Go aren’t going to stop there. On the other hand though, a future where people are oppressed by malign machines seems straight from a back lot in Hollywood or Watford; fun to chew on with some popcorn on a Saturday night but hardly something your angst needs to grind on right now.

If you are increasingly anxious about the rise of machine intelligence though I’d strongly recommend the recent book What to Think About Machines That Think edited by John Brockman, Editor and Publisher of the very cool Brockman has rounded up essays by a lot of top wetware including Paul Saffo, Tim O’Reilly, Kevin Kelly, Nick Bostrom, and Esther Dyson, amongst many others, who all take different cracks at figuring out quite how worried/excited/blasé we should be. If there’s a consensus amongst the thinkers about what to think about machines that think it’s pretty hard to discern. Better software than what I have on board would be needed to figure that out. There are some, like Bruce Schneier from Harvard Law School, who wonder what happens when a omputer (not its operator) breaks the law. Others, like Josh Bongard from the University of Vermont, suggest that when “machines are commanded to “survive, reproduce, and improve in the best way possible” they will probably give us humans a very short window to relish that insight”. But then again, others feel aligned with Steven Pinker from the Department of Psychology at Harvard, who writes “My own view is that the current fears of computers running amok are a waste of emotional energy – that the scenario (i.e. the rise of AI) is closer to the Y2K bug than the Manhattan Project”.

Which brings me full circle back to that primo piece of wetware (not featured in Brockman’s book) Pablo Picasso. In 1968, when he made the remark above, computing was – as seen from 2016 – in its infancy. But it was powerful enough to fire the imagination of many who wondered where software would take us and what it would be like when we got there. Arthur C. Clarke was worrying about HAL. Philip K. Dick was dreaming of electric sheep. Michael Moorcock was already leaping ahead to speculate about the final program (US spelling!). It wasn’t hard, even then, to extrapolate that software would get cleverer and cleverer and one day get cleverer than us. Of course the Turing Test was already almost 20 years old by then, long enough for the kings of the swingers to worry how long they’d be the jungle VIPs (Disney’s The Jungle Book came out in 1967 ...)

Picasso though was less impressed and less concerned. His, at first gnomic, but on reflection, devastatingly profound statement, was spot on then, but even more spot on – even with the technological advances of the last 50 years – today. Computers have gotten great at giving us answers; ask Siri “what does the fox say” and she’ll (!) correctly answer “fraka-kaka-kaka-kaka-kow”. Waze will tell us to avoid Route 17 because there’s just been a fender bender. Zapier will automatically create a Google Calendar event from an Evernote reminder. IFTTT will tell your family when you’re on the way home from work. But these are still all answers. We – the wetware – are still thinking of the questions. Even on the very far edge of the new frontier – the aforementioned game of GO – the real VIPs are humble and understated in their claims for where things stand; “It’s (sci-fi AI) very, very far in the future from the kinds of things we’re currently dealing with, which is playing Pong on Atari”, Demis Hassabis told the FT last year This nice compilation of quotes, rounded up by Business Insider, also injects a dose of healthy skepticism from those really in the know.

Now I wouldn’t go quite as far as Old Pablo in saying computers are useless; I quite like my iMac, iPad, PC, Apple Watch, E20, TV, car, etc etc (computers one and all). But I do think that Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso (would a computer think of that?) was onto something then and is still onto something now. We – not software – are the future of questions and questions remain more important than answers. Questions come first. Every answer begets a question.

Questions – curiosity –are/is (I would argue) the central defining characteristic of intelligence (as it is manifested in our human form). From our first words to our first steps to our first journey it is intrinsic to our very being to want to know who what why or where. Nobody tells us to ask questions. No parent, or teacher, or TV show, or social media feed tells us – programs us – to want to know “zup?” We just do. I wonder why? C’est une bonne question...

When computers start asking questions – “just what do you think you’re doing Dave?” – then I guess we can start worrying. But that – it seems to me – is as far as away in the future as it was 50 years ago.

I hope.

Please note that this is article was written by me, Ben Pring, not by Automated Insights or Narrative Science.