United Breaks Privacy with Passenger App

The Wall Street Journal: “United rolled out a new app to its flight attendants earlier this year with so much information about people, the airline has been reluctant to turn on all the functionality. The tool can show flight attendants information on each frequent flier’s five previous flights—green if it was a good flight, yellow or red if something went wrong, like a delay. But United is worried some customers might consider that stalking … Personal milestones like birthdays are left to the judgment of flight attendants. They can decide whether they think a customer would appreciate the recognition or recoil.”

“The devices can give flight attendants real-time information on tight flight connections for passengers, confirm whether a wheelchair has been ordered for a customer and help keep track of unaccompanied minors. Many now allow flight attendants to offer instant compensation for maladies like spilled coffee or broken entertainment screens. Better service onboard in coach will go to those with higher status.”

“Airlines acknowledge the devices have made the job more complex for flight attendants. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, says the devices can reduce situational awareness. If flight attendants have to study the screen to correctly recognize each customer, they may not be spending as much time staying alert to what’s going on in the cabin.” She comments: “I’m a little shocked there hasn’t been more backlash. I think the public has generally decided they like the personalized service, they like to be able to resolve their issues faster, not have to tell people as much. And they’ve sort of sacrificed their privacy for those conveniences.”

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MacBlur: Apple Melds Laptops & iPhones

The Wall Street Journal: “Laptops, which haven’t been exciting for years, are about to get interesting again … Many manufacturers are already using mobile chips from smartphones in laptops running Google’s Chrome OS, and are starting to put them in laptops running Microsoft Windows. Apple Inc. already designs its own chips, which are arguably the fastest mobile processors in the world—will it use them in its own MacBooks? A shift in this direction would blur the line between laptops and mobile devices further, changing our expectations of computers large and small.”

“So imagine something that looks like a MacBook and works like a MacBook, but has the guts of an iPhone. In addition to things like facial recognition and AR capabilities, it could have longer battery life, built-in always-on connectivity to fast 5G networks, and more … The size of the circuitry on a microchip, known as a process node, determines its power consumption, performance and cost. The smaller the transistors on the chip, the wider the variety of stuff you can put on it, such as wireless modems, GPS receivers, image processors and the like. Each new silicon breakthrough is named after the ever-smaller distance between certain chip components, measured in nanometers.”

“Apple is also pushing capabilities such as on-device artificial intelligence, which could enable better voice recognition and other capabilities, and the company aims to support only its own graphics software in the future. Because Apple’s in-house chip designers only have one customer—Apple—they’re able to tune its silicon to run all these things as fast as possible.”

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Computers Teach Humans To Be More Human

The Wall Street Journal: “Can a computer program make humans more human? That’s the goal of new software aimed at making call-center agents better at their jobs by assessing performance on phone etiquette and social skills like empathy and patience … Cogito is one of several companies developing analytics tools that give agents feedback about how conversations with customers are going.”

“Its software measures in real time the tone of an agent’s voice, their speech rate, and how much each person is talking … That dance is sometimes out of sync, such as when an agent speaks too quickly or too much, cuts a customer off, has extended periods of silence or sounds tired … When the software detects these mistakes, a notification pops up on a window on an agent’s screen to coax them to change their strategy.”

“These tools don’t understand every nuance of what a person says—which, for now, might assuage privacy concerns about companies listening in on conversations and analyzing that data.”

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Reefer Madness: The New Meaning of ‘Fresh’

The Wall Street Journal: “Refrigerated containers known as “reefers” can keep food fresh for more than a month, allowing distributors to safely send everything from orange juice to lobsters around the world. In the past, those trips were mostly reserved for bananas because only major distributors like Chiquita Brands International Inc. could afford to hire cargo ships with large refrigerated spaces. Meanwhile, the growing affluence of the global population, especially in Asia, has boosted demand for more-expensive foods.”

“The main reefer trade is from the Southern Hemisphere to the north. Exporters in places like South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand move fresh produce to supplement demand in the north during the winter months. The U.S. and Canada are also exporters of vegetables, citrus and other fruit along with meat and seafood, mainly to Asia.”

“One of the smaller customers, Peru’s Sun Fruits Packs SA, last year shipped 700 reefers of grapes to Philadelphia and 220 containers of avocados to Spain and the Netherlands … It takes as long as 18 days to ship grapes from Peru to Philadelphia. The fruit “is put to sleep” in a controlled atmosphere that delays the ripening process before it’s distributed to supermarkets across the East Coast.”

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Waiting in Line: There’s No App For That

The Wall Street Journal: “Every day, Mitchell Burton orders and pays for an Italian B.M.T. sandwich on his Subway mobile app, so the sandwich is waiting at the counter. When he arrives, the 32-year-old Baton Rouge, La., parks and recreation worker frequently heads to the back of the line, to avoid seeming rude to less tech-savvy fellow customers. Line skippers sometimes ‘get the stink eye,’ he says, because fellow patrons don’t understand that there’s an app to order ahead.”

“Various ways to skip lines have gained momentum in recent years, as businesses ranging from retailers to movie theaters have come up with ways for customers to avoid a wait, often with mobile apps and ordering kiosks … In theory, order-ahead technology should appeal to everyone.” But: “Some line lovers say technology gets in the way of the personal touch. That’s why Al DiSalvatore sometimes puts his phone down and lines up the old fashioned way at coffee shops in Philadelphia. He likes when the baristas remember his name and order—something that reminds him of his time living in smaller cities.”

“Lining up is part of a gauzy nostalgia for the days before smartphones, which also includes professors banning laptops in class, people stopping at the register to write checks and shoppers skipping shopping online … Erik Fairleigh, 38, who works in communications at Amazon, also has a simple reason for sometimes joining the line. ‘I like to pay in cash,’ he says … Ashleigh Azzaria, a 34-year-old Palo Alto, Calif., event designer, typically chooses to wait in line for coffee at Starbucks, even though she has the mobile app installed and skips the line for bigger orders. ‘It’s my break,’ she says. ‘It’s my time to just kind of decompress, to not be on the phone’.”

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Ocean Medallion: Smooth Cruising on a ‘Smart’ Ship

Quartz: John Padgett, chief experience and innovation officer of Carnival Cruises, “previously worked for Disney, where he was instrumental in the creation of the MagicBand, a wristband meant to help reduce the aggravations of the typical Disney vacation … At Carnival, Padgett and his team quickly set out to create Carnival’s own version of the Disney MagicBand, called the Ocean Medallion. It uses AI to take the MagicBand technology to another level. Instead of just alleviating the ‘friction’ of typical travel experiences (lines, room keys, paying for things) it will use data to anticipate what you want to do, eat, and see.”

“The Medallion, offered first on Carnival’s Princess cruise line, is about the size of a quarter … It facilitates boarding and cuts down on wait times. It can be used to pay for things on the cruise, it unlocks the door to your room as you approach, and can be used on the ship-wide gambling platform. Carrying the Medallion means the staff knows your name and where you are. If you order a drink, they can come find you to deliver it. If you go to another bar on board, the staff already knows what you like. The Medallion also updates your information, keeping track of your likes and dislikes, what activities you enjoy, and what you consume. It anticipates other activities you’ll enjoy and the side trips you’ll want to take.”

“In many ways the Medallion is a beta launch of the first fully wired smart city. What it takes to make it work could one day be used on land. Padgett says the technology is innovative because the preferences you reveal are updated in real time. You order a Martini and every crew member on the ship instantly knows more information about you, and is that much closer to determining whether you might enjoy trying scuba diving—or just kicking back in your stateroom with an old episode of The Love Boat.”

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Short Edition: The Literary Vending Macine

The New York Times: “Short Edition, a French community publisher of short-form literature, has installed more than 30 story dispensers in the United States in the past year to deliver fiction at the push of a button at restaurants and universities, government offices and transportation hubs. Francis Ford Coppola, the film director and winemaker, liked the idea so much that he invested in the company and placed a dispenser at his Cafe Zoetrope in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Last month public libraries in four cities — Philadelphia; Akron, Ohio; Wichita, Kan.; and Columbia, S.C. — announced they would be installing them too. There is one on the campus at Penn State. A few can be found in downtown West Palm Beach, Fla. And Short Edition plans to announce more, including at Los Angeles International Airport.”

“Here’s how a dispenser works: It is shaped like a cylinder with three buttons on top indicating a “one minute,” “three minute” or “five minute” story. (That’s how long it takes to read.) When a button is pushed, a short story is printed, unfurled on a long strip of paper. The stories are free. They are retrieved from a computer catalog of more than 100,000 original submissions by writers whose work has been evaluated by Short Edition’s judges, and transmitted over a mobile network. Offerings can be tailored to specific interests: children’s fiction, romance, even holiday-themed tales.”

“Short Edition, which is based in Grenoble and was founded by publishing executives, set up its first kiosk in 2016 and has 150 machines worldwide … The dispensers cost $9,200 plus an additional $190 per month for content and software. The only thing that needs to be replaced is paper. The printed stories have a double life, shared an average of 2.1 times.” Kristan Leroy of Short Edition comments: “The idea is to make people happy. There is too much doom and gloom today.”

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Wearhouse Hero: Boosting App-arel Sales

The Wall Street Journal: “Like many traditional chains, Men’s Wearhouse has had better luck converting store visits into sales than it has with shoppers browsing its website. Executives say they are turning to new technology created by a startup called Hero in hopes of improving results while still using the company’s existing workforce. Over the holiday shopping season, the company tested out the app in about 100 stores. It found that online shoppers were more likely to buy an item after chatting with a store worker, prompting an expedited rollout to the company’s remaining stores.”

“By September, more than 3,000 workers across both Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A Bank will be able to chat with online shoppers. The employees can wave their phones over product tags to generate web links to purchase the items and set up appointments through the app … The app connects an online customer with an available salesperson in the nearest store. To ensure that employees don’t become too pushy, it lets shoppers rate them, much in the same way an Uber passenger rates a driver. The video chat is one-way: Shoppers see into the store, but workers can’t see the customers.”

“Alistair Crane, the CEO of Hero, said his technology is built on the fact that store workers were already texting customers and using social media sites, like Instagram, to showcase products.”

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Alibaba Opens Door to O2O Retail

The Economist: “The season for the best xiaolongxia (little dragon shrimp) is just beginning, and so on a recent evening four young friends tucked into a pile of steaming-hot crayfish. But rather than sitting in a restaurant they were at a table surrounded by supermarket aisles stocked with nappies, baby formula and cooking oil … ‘Eat-as-you-shop’ is one innovation of Hema Xiansheng, a chain of fancy supermarkets. And these shops are themselves the showiest elements of a bid by Alibaba … to master ‘online-to-offline’, or O2O, retailing, in which customers use digital channels to buy from physical businesses. Alibaba currently runs 40 Hema stores in ten cities. It wants to open 2,000 in the next five years.”

“Alibaba is hoping to apply its online know-how to them with Ling Shou Tong, a free retail-management platform launched in 2016. Through it, shop owners can order products sourced by Alibaba from partners such as Procter & Gamble. It then uses its logistics affiliate, Cainiao, to ship them. Shops are given advice on what to stock based on Alibaba’s trove of data—plenty of dog food in pooch-loving areas, say. In return Alibaba gets valuable data on spending habits in poorer cities, especially among older shoppers who buy offline.”

“A clearer signal of Alibaba’s ambitions as a provider of services to other outlets came on April 2nd, when it bought the shares it did not already own in Ele.me, valuing the food-delivery platform at $9.5bn. These services span online tools for inventory management to marketing and smartphone payments. They also include labour. Ele.me’s network lets thousands of small restaurants ferry dishes to the doors of some of China’s 700m smartphone users. Through the acquisition Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder, added 3m delivery people to the 2m of Cainiao, boosting the group’s ‘last-mile’ delivery capabilities.”

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Bingo Box: China Leads Robo-Retail Revolution

The New York Times: “A global race to automate stores is underway among several of the world’s top retailers and small tech start-ups, which are motivated to shave labor costs and minimize shoppers’ frustrations, like waiting for cashiers … Companies are testing robots that help keep shelves stocked, as well as apps that let shoppers ring up items with a smartphone … China, which has its own ambitious e-commerce companies, is emerging as an especially fertile place for these retail experiments.”

“One effort is a chain of more than 100 unmanned convenience shops from a start-up called Bingo Box, one of which sits in a business park in Shanghai. Shoppers scan a code on their phones to enter and, once inside, scan the items they want to buy. The store unlocks the exit door after they’ve paid through their phones … Not to be outdone, JD, another big internet retailer in China … put readable chips on items to automate the checkout process. At its huge campus south of Beijing, JD is testing a new store that relies on computer vision and sensors on the shelves to know when items have been taken.”

“While such technologies could improve the shopping experience, there may also be consequences that people find less desirable. Retailers like Amazon could compile reams of data about where customers spend time inside their doors, comparable to what internet companies already know about their online habits … In China, there is less public concern about data privacy issues. Many Chinese citizens have become accustomed to high levels of surveillance, including widespread security cameras and government monitoring of online communications.”

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