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May 28, 2014

Rooting for Computers That Think Like The Brain

Posted by Dr. Srinivas Padmanabhuni (View Profile | View All Posts) at 12:41 PM

Google's Artificial Intelligence Plans [Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=As4fXoI8WpI]

Science fiction movies are filled with fascinating references to mankind's distrust of artificial intelligence. Remember HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey? The computer quietly observes human behavior until it reveals to the beleaguered crew that it is indeed in charge of the spaceship. The Matrix was another such tale. It took the protagonist a lot of cajoling to convince him that he lived in a computer-generated reality. That computer, like HAL, didn't want to cede control of the situation.

We're now at the point where we don't have to go to the movies to gauge our distrust of artificial intelligence. A case in point is the "captcha," the often difficult-to-decipher list of letters and numbers that is supposed to discourage spammers and automated entities from getting access to Web sites. A group of engineers invented the captcha more than a decade ago as a way to distinguish between humans and computers on the Web. But what might not come as a surprise is that an artificial intelligence company claims to have figured out a way for its computer to crack most captchas. The computers once again appear to be beating us at our own game!

Whichever side you're rooting for (and you might very well be partial to computer brains if you are an engineer), one thing is certain: the fact that artificial intelligence is advancing to the point where it can think like a human brain is pretty amazing. It's part of a technology movement that aims to make computers see not unlike our human eyes do. And for that to take place, computers still need to bridge a large gap between numerical processing and sensory perception.

Until now, a computer was only as good as its programmer. As long as it confronts problems from a series of computations based entirely on 0s and 1s, there's very little a modern computer can't do ... and in record time. But when you start asking even the most advanced machines to classify a spoken statement as either serious or a joke, you start to test its limits. I was reading a fascinating article that referred to new software from Google that can distinguish animal faces from human faces when presented with various video clips. Apparently it takes 16,000 processors to power this sort of software.

Clearly we're on the path to producing computers that can "think" more in line with humans. That we're on our way to building machines with neural synapses and cognitive functions is inspiring. But what are the commercial possibilities? It's neat that my laptop someday might be able to "listen" to a piece of music and identify its composer. This technology truly goes a long way, however, when it comes to the driverless car. That prospect would become a lot more realistic if the computer platform powering those cars had cognitive skills - the ability to distinguish a small child running into the street from a plastic bag that's blown into the path of the car by a gust of wind. The former is a situation in which the brakes must be applied; the latter is just an empty bag blowing in the wind. It's easy for us to recognize the difference, but difficult for even the most sophisticated of computer platforms to judge time and again on the open road.

That's why I'm rooting for the machines. I think enterprises of all stripes, from automobile manufacturers to retailers, will benefit from computing platforms that can see the world as their human customers do. Whether it can drive a car or drive in-store sales when a shopper is deciding what shirt or shoes to buy, a computing platform more closely resembling the human brain will aid companies in their quest to better connect with digital consumers. cognitive computational platforms are now being evaluated for applications in domains like healthcare and insurance.

It's amazing that computers can now go on and win game shows and successfully challenge chess grand masters. Yet those same engineering marvels might have trouble recognizing which of three modernist paintings is a Picasso. The point we're at with computational intelligence is not unlike where we were with Big Data only a few years ago. A lot of that data existed; we simply hadn't yet figured out an efficient way to process it so that we could crack into the minds of our consumers.

In specific case of services innovation , cognitive computing has the potential to disrupt human -centered processes and information technology services with the emergence of robotic automation.

Computers that see, smell, and hear are on their way, and the commercial applications of such machines will be limitless. So much for the captcha...

May 26, 2014

How Digital Technology Can Replicate the In-Store Experience

Posted by Dinesh Bajaj (View Profile | View All Posts) at 10:04 AM

Dise Digital Signage New Shopping Experience! [Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LX_4bd4t_vo]

I found myself the other evening watching one of the most delightful old movies: "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Because it hit theatres back in 1961, it's definitely dated. The references in the movie to the retail world are fascinating, however, because of the transformation that digital technology is having on that sector today - more than a half-century later.

In the movie, the young protagonist tells her would-be suitor that she loves going to Tiffany's because simply walking around the jewelry store makes her feel good. She can enter with all sorts of worries on her mind and then leave a half-hour later without a care in the world. She wasn't speaking about the jewelry per se. She was talking about the entire in-store experience: the combination of the layout, the lighting, the way the courteous staff greets her, and how they wait on her as attentively as possible.

I thought: Isn't that what retailers have been trying to do in the digital realm - to present an overall, personalized experience? Things indeed have come full circle since Web 1.0. That was back when Internet commerce sounded the death-knell of "bricks-and-mortar" retailers. Remember how the bookstore Border's was unable to make a go of it when Internet book retailers came on strong? Even recently, some retail analysts predicted the end of consumer electronics retailer Best Buy. To be sure, Best Buy had also gone through a near-death experience. It was not uncommon for people to go to those well-stocked, spacious stores and browse the huge selection of consumer electronics.

They'd ask questions, compare items, and then, just as they made a decision as to what to buy, they would go online and order the item from a Web retailer such as Amazon.com. I've just described, of course, the practice of show-rooming. After resisting the phenomenon initially, Best Buy did the unthinkable by embracing it. Best Buy found a way to get the sale converted by a policy of price-matching.

Retailers have a lot of data at their disposal, whether it's from Web sites or from store associates or social media. There's a lot more to the retailing world than just easy access to data. It's how you leverage that it in order to provide a more personalized experience. Retailers are moving rapidly into a new reality - that of taking the data and using it to make for an extremely personalized shopping experience.

The current transformation of retailers to extreme personalization is where the physical stores and store associates catch up with all the strides they've made online. It's where they begin to analyze Big Data in such a way that each store understands its customers' needs, wants, and aspirations. Stores associates can now receive customer data in real-time as a result of potent mix of technology capabilities like Cloud, mobility, and analytics.

On the other hand, digital consumers are becoming more comfortable with the value that personalization creates for them. True, the retailer will have to respect their privacy, but will at the same time make it a very personal shopping experience. That's another reason why sales associates must become more technologically sophisticated. They must know the importance of how to leverage data in as subtle a manner as possible. Frankly, you can arm your sales associates with as many iPads to check out customers before they even approach a cash register. But if your staff doesn't appreciate the relevance and role of those tablets in the greater context of the digital enterprise, then you've wasted time and money.

As stores become more intelligent, they will learn how best to contextualize their relationships with customers. If my wife is shopping for a dress online and then decides to buy one the next time she's in a physical store, it goes without saying that the store better mirror the online inventory. And the retailer better know that the lady who was browsing online is the same person who now wants to buy a dress in the store. The ability to contextualize past and present behavior is particularly helpful for consumer packages goods (CPG) companies. If a CPG company can send a customer a coupon for a brand of soap while she's in a store aisle trying to decide what kind of soap to buy, they are creating a certain type of magic. It's the kind of magic that stays with the customer until the moment of purchase and beyond.

Which brings me back to a wonderful movie about a high-end jewelry store called Tiffany's. At one point the sales associate comes to the realization that the young couple can't afford anything in the store. So he's open to engraving a cheap ring that one of them found in a box of Crackerjack. True, he says, it's highly unusual for a store like Tiffany's to engrave something so cheap (and not from the store itself). But the sales associate can tell in his gut that someday this couple will have the kind of money that can be spent there; he makes the decision on the spot to accommodate their unusual engraving request. At that moment he shows how intelligent a sales associate he truly is. That special connection between brand and customer is something that only now our digital retailing technology is beginning to replicate.

May 21, 2014

In Search of New Payment Methods

Posted by Ravi Kumar S. (View Profile | View All Posts) at 11:07 AM

Next Generation of Mobile Payments [Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnFQ5sQ9H0g]

Ibn Battuta, the famous explorer from the Middle Ages, was amazed at how someone could write him a check in North Africa and then he could cash it when he was thousands of miles away in, say, Persia or India. The Asian trade routes of the 14th century sustained financial systems (including check-cashing) that are surprisingly similar to what we all use today. It's a testament to how advanced Asian economies were eight centuries ago. But it doesn't say much for those of us who still carry checkbooks around even today. I saw a study that estimates it costs $1.21 to make a payment by check in a grocery store versus 78 cents for a debit card. Moving to mobile payments has the potential to reduce transaction costs even more signficantly.

I have followed Bitcoin for the past year or so with a lot of fascination, largely because it looks to be the first of many digital ways to revolutionize how the world's consumers move value. Not everyone's a fan of Bitcoin, but at least its creators are attempting to address the fact that the global economic system could benefit from payment methods that aren't 800 years old.

Cash registers, at retail outlets, spit strips of paper out by the billions each day and people bring them home, often in their shopping bags. What can stores do to take receipts digital or even to use the pieces of paper more effectively? True, the long paper receipts from places like fast food restaurants have coupons on them, but I've never heard of anyone ever using those paper coupons. There have to be better ways of utilizing a blank canvas like a paper receipt. Of course, another aspect of paper receipts that makes consumers roll their eyes is affixing your signature to one at the point of purchase. My hunch is that the days of signing your signature in ink on a paper receipt are numbered - as well they should be.

And if paper weren't antiquated enough, what about wallets filled with hard plastic credit cards? I imagine it's time for retailers or banks or perhaps the likes of Google to really transform customer experience. The high-end coffee retailer Starbucks has been using mobile wallet technology with some degree of success. It would be great to see large retail chains embrace it as well. In fact, after the recent security meltdown at a prominent U.S retailer, there is a widespread move to revamp point of sale systems. With that, they might as well make it Near Field Communication-capable and therefore mobile wallet friendly.

Security is rightfully a concern and breaches don't come cheap, so it's all the more reason for retailers to adopt radical innovations in security such as "blockchain cryptography." An interesting report on two-chain cryptography incudes a quotation from an executive at Ripple, an innovative open payments system. "If you are making a payment, you would personally access your private key, but the merchant never does, so it takes the merchant out of the equation as a potential vulnerability," he told the press.

What interests me the most about the antiquated nature of our payments methods is how we still tolerate clearing systems that can take 24 hours to settle a transaction. Clearinghouses are centuries old. Our digital marketplace still waits for payments to settle after the banks of customers clear them. There are billions of people, across the globe, who are either unbanked or under-banked and need efficient payment options. That's a sign that there's a lot that can happen in the payments space.

Payment methods clearly need to catch up to the speed and technological prowess of the digital consumer and the stores she frequents. In the digital age, is there a reason why banks still need to be batch-driven and take 24 hours or more to clear payments or why a customer has to take out a black-ink pen to affix her signature? These are all holdovers from a different era and, clearly, digital consumers want to move on. Those players who lead the way will win, and the rest are likely to be left behind...

May 19, 2014

Is There a Digital Crisis of Trust On The Horizon?

Posted by Ajay Anand (View Profile | View All Posts) at 10:16 AM

Davos 2014 - The New Digital Context [Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgP4cgYo1YE]

Are digital consumers beginning to grow uneasy about sharing their personal information with large enterprises? It's an interesting question that our friends at the prestigious World Economic Forum are attempting to answer. The WEF recently teamed up with Microsoft to study "context." The new WEF study not only looks at how consumers define context but also how organizations can better design context-aware systems that allow for more meaningful online interactions. Individual preferences are complex - no two are alike. So in the era of Big Data, companies are discovering a paradox: Even though they get to see broad brushstrokes painted for them by Big Data, they still need to understand the individual consumer. That's not always the easiest thing to do.

The study tells us that the context in which data is used is not binary - it's "nuanced, personal, evolving over time and reflecting differences in cultural and social norms. There are no absolutes." To that end, I think it's vital that organizations develop the kind of transparency that these many, nuanced views can each appreciate and understand. At the top of this to-do list is the need to empower digital customers so that a circle of trust on the Internet is fully developed.

I have a theory about why the Internet has not totally transformed the life of digital consumers. It's because those consumers cling to devices and systems that cede them a bit of control, whether perceived or not. For example, the typical digital consumer can spend hours on her phone, her tablet, and social networks. But there are still some hours of the day that she's separated from those vehicles - that is, when she is watching television. To be sure, the same technology providers who bring us great experiences on social networks and mobile computing platforms have tried with some degree of success to offer us their versions of 21st-century television. But the TV set is still its own beast. It is its own ecosystem. Large cable operators such as Comcast and DirecTV offer consumers hundreds of different channels and even let them watch those shows whenever they want. Being able to fast-forward through commercials is one of the reasons people are willing to pay premiums for these cable TV packages. Try as they might to infiltrate it, cable TV continues to operate as a successful system that stands apart from the Internet world. Part of that reason involves trust and context.

A consumer knows that for a couple minutes in an hour she must endure television commercials. But paying a premium for cable means she can largely bypass those ads. Because there exists a lot of specialty channels, companies can pinpoint their advertisements and reach the kinds of consumers that once only the Internet could. But beyond that, TV as a business model is such that consumers are fairly comfortable with the kind of information they give up for the entertainment they receive in return.

I think that the World Economic Forum is once again delivering a valuable and thought-provoking study as they delve into the world of digital trust. When consumers begin to feel as though they have some kind of control over the data that they divulge, the sooner they'll be confortable with allowing Internet companies to make more inroads into their personal lives. But consumers are more savvy than we think, which is why they'll hold a certain number of their cards close to the proverbial chest.

May 14, 2014

How to harness technology to create value in totally new ways?

Posted by Soundararajan S (View Profile | View All Posts) at 11:28 AM

Google's Grand Plan for Titan Aerospace [Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31PW-Ep-Ykc]

This snippet of 20th century history never fails to amaze me: In the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, several military-industrial elites got together to propose creating a communications network that could work in the event of a nuclear war. Their top-secret plan was to design a complex web of communications lines that would allow messages to reach the intended recipient even if a portion of the network was knocked out of commission by a war. Various governments developed this byzantine network and there it stood by for decades, ready for armies and political leaders who might need to use it. They never did. By the 1980s, university professors began using it to send each other messages and trade research.

That Cold War relic was the Internet.

Soon more than just colonels and professors would use it. A young generation of scientists and computer aficionados would unlock its commercial potential. By doing so they helped create the Information Age. Many people are surprised that the Internet sat around as a little-used tool of a bygone era until innovators began harnessing the technology to create value in completely new ways. Its story serves as a lesson as to what can happen when we are unafraid to look at technology from new and untested perspectives, especially when monetization is a possibility.

Consider how the social network Facebook is positioning itself for the next decade - not as merely a place to share photos and funny remarks but as a bank. Recently, the Financial Times reported that Facebook is close to obtaining approval that would allow its users to store money on the network as well as to exchange funds with other members. The company is ingeniously commercializing digital friendship. Who needs the central banks of nations when private enterprise can establish safe, closed networks by which to engage in commerce and trade?

Another tech giant, Google, recently acquired a company called Titan Aerospace. Why would a search engine want to be airborne? Well, if the company harnesses unmanned, solar-powered drone technology, it could help pump more life into Google Maps. But think of how Google might harness this technology to blaze a new trail, such as putting devices high into the earth's atmosphere in order to beam Internet signals to virtually anywhere in the world. A Google spokesman even told a publication that the technology might be harnessed to address environmental issues such as deforestation. A search engine entering the timber industry - who would have thought?

Of course, the act of profitably harnessing technology in new ways doesn't necessarily have to be cross industry. Just think about the science behind genetically modified foods. It arose as a way of more profitably utilizing agricultural land that is becoming scarcer by the decade. But now the technology of genetically modified foods has taken on a new relevance. With a global population boom underway and with potentially devastating possibilities, 100-year storms occurring every one or two years, biotech crops can help sustain the populations of large nations. When people are well fed, it means more ability for them to concentrate on improving their economies through hard work and innovation of their own. Talk about a seed taking root and creating new possibilities!

How can I use 'technology' as a means of helping customers achieve the outcomes they desire - to make the world even a wee bit better - now that's a question worth some deliberation I'd think.

May 12, 2014

Are These Stupendous Disruptions On the Way?

Posted by Rajashekara V. Maiya (View Profile | View All Posts) at 12:23 PM

4D Printing is the Future of Design [Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ow5TgVTTUdY]

The analysts at the research arm at megabank Citi are once again creating a buzz for their Top 10 list of the technologies that will disrupt our world.

For example, one of the innovations on their latest list is 4-D printing. Essentially this development will allow people first to use 3-D printers to print out materials that can then assemble themselves. The United States Army, a group that tends to be keen on the latest technologies, seeded a total of $855,000 to a handful of universities that are doing research on 4-D printing. If the military has expressed interest, I imagine private industry has plenty of potential uses for this technology as well.

A promising technology on the bank's new list is immunotherapy. The idea is that doctors can train a person's immune system both to recognize and (if needed) attack cancerous cells.

Expect disruption where you might never think of looking: the farm. The bank's analysts say that "precision agriculture" is going to be big, with things like hyper-local weather detectors and even an Internet for farming machines. The world's population is growing like never before, and that means billions more mouths to feed in the coming decades. With land limited (they're certainly not making more of that!), today's agro-businesses are looking for such innovations to make the most out of the farmland that they presently have.

The electric grids in places like North America are ageing, and in the developing world they can't seem to keep up with supplying energy to the skyrocketing population. In both cases, the future appears to be filled with technologies that better store electricity for when people actually need to use it. Says one Citi analyst: "If storage could be combined with smart metering and demand response, we could conceivably move to a situation where load is managed and supply is being managed by storage. This could significantly reduce the amount of stranded capacity and hence wasted cost on an electricity system, as well as improve its reliability."

Another area that is becoming a lot more dependable is digital banking. Increasingly we're seeing just about every financial services functions become automated. That should continue in a big way: Citi's analysts predict that mobile banking will experience a huge growth rate in the coming years because of the convergence of two phenomena: Western markets adopting an almost-complete use of automated banking functions and emerging markets beginning to use less cash and more credit in their day-to-day transactions. There are some areas of the world where physical bank branches have become very quiet - customers would rather do their banking online than visit an actual location.

Some innovations involve financial innovations and will be no less disruptive. In the insurance industry, look for securitization to shake things up. Traditionally, old-line insurers have gotten together to pool their risks in what's known as reinsurance. But instead of placing their risks in one or two reinsurance firms, insurers can spread it out in securitized bundles. (Is there anything left that banks haven't figured out how to securitize?!) Already the established reinsurers have dropped their prices by as much as 15 percent because of the securitization trend.

Whether or not these exciting predictions become more apparent in the next year, one thing is certain: Disruptions abound when innovative organizations are fueling the global economy.

May 5, 2014

Are You Procuring Innovative Management?

Posted by Puneet Gupta (View Profile | View All Posts) at 12:13 PM

Banking and Media - Cross Industry Innovation - Telstra Enterprise [Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xp3hYTR-qKI]

I can't say that I'm the biggest fan of fast food. But I am a fan of the business processes and operational excellence that some fast food chains employ in order to get a meal in front of a customer in just a matter of minutes. I've also been impressed by the innovative culture of fast food restaurants. At first glance this statement sounds a bit odd - I mean, how innovative do you have to be to fry up a hamburger?

Well, consider this story: In the mid 1970s, McDonald's got word that one of its franchisees had placed a poached egg, a slice of cheese, and some Canadian bacon in the middle of a toasted an English muffin. He called the sandwich the "Egg McMuffin" and it was (excuse the pun) selling like hotcakes. The restaurant manager had wanted something to sell during the late morning, when people were coming in to buy coffee but it was still too early to be ordering hamburgers and fries. The executives at corporate headquarters were impressed by this new sandwich and gave it their mark of approval. Soon, every McDonald's around the world was selling this new sandwich and it helped the chain expand into the lucrative breakfast timeslot.

The take-away here is that despite the impressive corporate test kitchens and executive chefs that McDonald's has at the corporate level, this successful menu item came form a franchisee in the field. Someone who had most likely never visited corporate headquarters. It was a sign that despite the size of the global company, anyone - even a local franchisee - could innovate and create the next big thing for the company.

To me, that's something all organizations should aim for. We should sustain corporate cultures that encourage innovation and - perhaps more importantly - shepherd the best innovations to the forefront. Yet, doing so creates a bit of a conundrum for business leaders. That is, how do we identify and borrow best innovative practices from other organizations? If you're the head of a technology company, can you imitate a culture in which an employee in the field can feel empowered to develop innovations that might have the same kind of transformative power over your company that the Egg McMuffin did for McDonald's? Which ideas should you borrow from other companies and how?

There are two ways to acquire promising practices from other firms. The first is common enough - observe and apply. The second is to extract a management practice's underlying logic.

One example that has been met with a degree of success over the past few years has involved agile development. Indeed, agile development isn't exclusive to the realm of software anymore. Many different industries have discovered the advantages of testing early and often. It is not uncommon for apparel companies, today, to employ the principles of agile development to how they stock their retail stores and stay on top of ever-evolving fashion trends. Many chains are shortened their supply chain response to fashion trends to two months from an industry standard five to seven months.

Whether it's fast food or clothing, there are a lot of best management practices that can be learned if we open our enterprises up to them. I'm not suggesting that you indiscriminately pull practices into your firm. I am recommending being receptive to how others put innovation into practice. That's because a commitment to a robust innovation journey transcends industry and sector.

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