Machine Platform Crowd: The Future Today

The Wall Street Journal: Machine Platform Crowd, a new book by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, “is a book for managers whose companies sit well back from the edge and who would like a digestible introduction to technology trends that may not have reached their doorstep—yet … In the authors’ terminology, ‘Machine’ is shorthand for computers running software that, with new AI techniques called ‘deep learning,’ essentially teaches itself how to make judgments superior to those of humans. ‘Machine’ also encompasses the disappearance of employees in the services sector, leaving only the customer, robots and software—what the authors refer to as ‘virtualization.'”

“‘Platform’ refers to digital environments that bring economic actors together, exploiting free, or nearly free, online access, reproduction and distribution. Uber and Airbnb are examples of new platforms. ‘Crowd’ refers to information resources created by the uncredentialed, the nonexpert and, with rare exceptions, the unpaid. Wikipedia and the Linux operating system comprise the two most impressive achievements of the crowd.”

​”Messrs. McAfee and Brynjolfsson argue that, in the latest phase of the second machine age, incumbent businesses will be pushed aside if they fail to understand how new machines and software, platforms, and the crowd enlarge the scope of digital technologies—just as manufacturers that had appeared and thrived in the first phase of the first machine age were displaced when electricity supplanted steam power in the early 20th century.”

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Quantumobiles: VW Catches D-Wave

The New York Times: “Efforts by Volkswagen, trying to remake itself as a technology leader as it recovers from an emissions scandal, show how far into exotic realms of technology carmakers are willing to go. Volkswagen, a German company, recently joined the handful of large corporations worldwide that are customers of D-Wave Systems, a Canadian maker of computers that apply the mind-bending principles of quantum physics.”

“While some experts question their usefulness, D-Wave computers — housed in tall, matte black cases that recall the obelisks in the science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey — can in theory process massive amounts of information at unheard-of speeds … While classical computers are based on bits with a value of either 1 or 0, the qubits in a quantum computer can exist in multiple states at the same time. That allows them, in theory, to perform calculations that would be beyond the powers of a typical computer.”

“This year Volkswagen used a D-Wave computer to demonstrate how it could steer the movements of 10,000 taxis in Beijing at once, optimizing their routes and thereby reducing congestion … Such claims are met with skepticism by some experts, who say there is no convincing proof that D-Wave computers are faster than a well-programmed conventional supercomputer … Volkswagen executives say they will publish the results of their work with D-Wave computers, allowing outsiders to try to debunk them.”

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Game On: The Future of Sports Arenas

The Guardian: “With its own dedicated fromagerie, microbrewery and Michelin-calibre restaurant, it might be easy to forget you have come to watch the football when you are reclining in one of the premium lounges of Tottenham Hotspur’s new £750m stadium. The 61,000-seat behemoth will feature the longest bar in the country, heated seats with built-in USB ports, a glass-walled tunnel so you can see the players before the game and even a ‘sky walk’ allowing fans to clamber over the roof of the arena.”

“Besides the fancy catering, the football pitch itself has to work a lot harder, too. This is the first field of its kind designed to split into three parts and slide seamlessly under the seating stands, revealing an astroturf field beneath for American football, positioned at a lower level to ensure perfect sight lines for both modes of play. Acoustic consultants were brought on board in order to guarantee maximum amplification of crowd noise, ensuring a “wall of sound” will resonate from the 17,000-seat south stand.”

Christopher Lee, an architect, “says the next big frontier is holographic representation, describing a world where players might be beamed on to the field from thousands of miles away.” However, architect Jacques Herzog “says his focus is always on capturing the local specificity of the place, designing a venue that somehow responds to the fan culture of the team in question, whether that’s a glowing lantern for Munich, a sharp white temple for Bordeaux, or an archaic masonry complex of vaults and buttresses for Stamford Bridge.”

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Amazon Patents Shopper-Control Technology

The Washington Post: “Amazon was awarded a patent May 30 that could help it choke off a common issue faced by many physical stores: Customers’ use of smartphones to compare prices even as they walk around a shop. The phenomenon, often known as mobile ‘window shopping,’ has contributed to a worrisome decline for traditional retailers.”

“But Amazon now has the technology to prevent that type of behavior when customers enter any of its physical stores and log onto the WiFi networks there. Titled ‘Physical Store Online Shopping Control,’ Amazon’s patent describes a system that can identify a customer’s Internet traffic and sense when the smartphone user is trying to access a competitor’s website.”

“When that happens, Amazon may take one of several actions. It may block access to the competitor’s site, preventing customers from viewing comparable products from rivals. It might redirect the customer to Amazon’s own site or to other, Amazon-approved sites. It might notify an Amazon salesperson to approach the customer. Or it might send the customer’s smartphone a text message, coupon or other information designed to lure the person back into Amazon’s orbit.”

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Robo-Shop: Will Cashiers Cash Out?

The New York Times: Our mental image of job-killing automation is robots in factories or warehouses. But the next jobs to disappear are probably ones that are a much bigger part of most people’s daily lives: retail workers and cashiers in stores and restaurants … Half the time worked by salespeople and cashiers is spent on tasks that can be automated by technology that’s currently in use, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report. Two-thirds of the time on tasks done by grocery store workers can be automated, it said.”

“Retailers say automating certain tasks doesn’t necessarily displace employees, but frees them to do other things that are more valuable to customers. Lowe’s, for instance, said its customer service robot answered simple questions so employees could provide more personalized expertise, like home project planning … But shoppers often prefer to save time by interacting with fewer people, especially when they just need coffee or paper towels.”

Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the M.I.T. Initiative on the Digital Economy, comments: “The bigger and more profound way that technology affects jobs is by completely reinventing the business model. Amazon didn’t go put a robot into the bookstores and help you check out books faster. It completely reinvented bookstores. The idea of a cashier won’t be so much automated as just made irrelevant — you’ll just tell your Echo what you need, or perhaps it will anticipate what you need, and stuff will get delivered to you.”

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Footwear Revolution: Sneaking Up on Fast Fashion

Quartz: “A sneaker starts with a sketch. Before a brand can turn that idea into a prototype, it has to produce the patterns that serve as the instructions for the factory putting it together, and create the metal mold used for the sole. This process alone takes weeks. It then makes a sample, which usually requires more fine tuning. Several samples may be necessary, with the process repeated each time a new one is made. It can take a year before a final design is ready for production.”

“Now virtual prototyping is letting brands shorten that timeline dramatically … 3D printing is also hugely beneficial for rapid prototyping, since it lets brands skip the tooling step needed to build molds for foam soles. That alone can take a month. But brands can now print prototypes of a sole in a matter of hours.”

“Why should shoppers care? Together these changes in design and manufacturing mean they won’t need to wait to get the products they want, and it should soon be feasible to get items custom-made, since it will be easier and cheaper for brands to produce just one of an item … For the brands themselves, cutting back lead times will let them respond to the market better, meaning they won’t need to make vast quantities of shoes in advance.”

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Panera 2.0: Making Fast Food Faster

The Wall Street Journal: “Seven years ago, customers at Panera had to wait in line for up to eight minutes to place an order … Today, online orders make up more than a quarter of sales at its company-owned restaurants, and the average time customers spend waiting in line to order food has shrunk to one minute. Panera is widely cited by analysts as one of the most technologically savvy, best-performing chains in the industry.”

In 2012, “the chain opened a Panera prototype in Braintree, Mass., to test all elements of “Panera 2.0”: self-order kiosks, delivery, digital ordering and a new practice of bringing food to customers’ tables … Easing the ordering bottleneck by taking orders online, instead of at the counter, wasn’t enough: The kitchen had to be able to handle the volume. Allowing customers to place orders themselves led to more customization, but also more staff mistakes. The company revamped the way employees process orders in an effort to minimize errors by simplifying the kitchen display systems.”

“Digital orders now make up 26% of sales in Panera’s more than 900 company-owned cafes and delivery is available in 24% of its total locations—a percentage it expects to grow to as much as 40% by year-end. The chain in April said it plans to add 10,000 delivery drivers this year, on top of the roughly 4,000 it has now … Panera turned the corner last year as digital orders and delivery gained traction. In the first quarter of 2016, the chain posted its best traffic and same-store sales growth in four years, outperforming the industry by 6.5 percentage points—the widest margin it had ever recorded.”

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‘Amazon Charts’ Re-Define ‘Best Seller’

The New York Times: Amazon now tracks “not only the top-selling digital and print books on Amazon, but the ones that customers spend the most time reading … With its lists, Amazon aims to redefine the notion of a best seller, expanding it to include books that are ‘borrowed’ from its e-book subscription service, and ones that are streamed on Audible. As a result, the lists give increased visibility to books that might not typically appear on other best-seller lists.”

“All of Amazon’s acquisitions and new features are having a cumulative effect, allowing the company to draw on its vast customer base and troves of data to discover what is popular, and return that information to customers, creating a lucrative feedback loop … Crowdsourcing and data mining are also driving the company’s approach to its bookstores, which act as showcases for books popular with customers on the site. While the stores have traditional categories, like fiction, nonfiction and travel, the most eye-catching shelves feature categories culled from Amazon’s customer data.”

“The first thing customers see when they walk into the store is a large display table, labeled Highly Rated, which includes books with an average rating of 4.8 stars or higher on a scale of 5 … Another display case, labeled Page-Turners, features books that people finish reading on their Kindle in fewer than three days … Another section features the most ‘wished for’ books from Amazon’s website … The books are all displayed face out. Under each book is a card with the average customer rating, the number of reviews and a featured review from an Amazon reader. Displaying the full cover of each book mimics the visual look of Amazon’s website, and might lure customers to unfamiliar titles.”

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Google Eyes: Watch While You Shop

The Washington Post: “Google executives say they are using complex, patent-pending mathematical formulas to protect the privacy of consumers when they match a Google user with a shopper who makes a purchase in a brick-and-mortar store. The mathematical formulas convert people’s names and other personal information into anonymous strings of numbers.”

“The formulas make it impossible for Google to know the identity of the real-world shoppers, and for the retailers to know the identities of Google’s users, Google executives said. The companies know only that a match has been made. In addition, Google does not get a detailed description of the individual transactions, just the amount spent.”

“Google would not say how merchants had obtained consent from consumers to pass along their credit card information. In the past, both Google and Facebook have obtained purchase data for a more limited set of consumers who participate in loyalty programs. Consumers that participate in loyalty programs are more heavily tracked by retailers, and often give consent to share their data with third parties as a condition of signing up. (Not all consumers may realize they have given such consent, according to the digital privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation).”

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Not SeeFood: App Apes ‘Shazam for Food’

The Verge: “In a peculiar case of life imitating art imitating life, Pinterest has announced a new recipe-finding feature that makes use of computer vision to tell you about a dish when you point your smartphone camera at it … It sounds an awful lot like SeeFood, the fake ‘Shazam for food’ app from the HBO comedy Silicon Valley. Pinterest, of course, doesn’t use that terminology anywhere, nor does its marketing material even reference the sitcom or its ludicrous parody, which manifested itself as an app that could only tell you whether an object was or was not a hotdog.”

“When reached for comment regarding SeeFood, a Pinterest representative confirmed to The Verge that the Silicon Valley episode was ‘separate and completely coincidental’.”

“This is all part of a broader artificial intelligence push in the tech industry to apply machine learning techniques to everyday life. By training neural networks on huge mounds of data and translating that into a real-time algorithm, tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are now developing software products that can digest and understand the world, from text to photos to even videos.”

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