The Design Science of Conversational Agents

“The challenge of creating a computer “personality” is now one that a growing number of software designers are grappling with,” reports The New York Times. “A new design science is emerging in the pursuit of building what are called “conversational agents,” software programs that understand natural language and speech and can respond to human voice commands. However, the creation of such systems, led by researchers in a field known as human-computer interaction design, is still as much an art as it is a science.”

“Most software designers acknowledge that they are still faced with crossing the ‘uncanny valley,’ in which voices that are almost human-sounding are actually disturbing or jarring … Beyond correct pronunciation, there is the even larger challenge of correctly placing human qualities like inflection and emotion into speech. Linguists call this ‘prosody,’ the ability to add correct stress, intonation or sentiment to spoken language.”

“The highest-quality techniques for natural-sounding speech begin with a human voice that is used to generate a database of parts and even subparts of speech spoken in many different ways. A human voice actor may spend from 10 hours to hundreds of hours, if not more, recording for each database.”

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Some Uber Drivers Are Not Uber Happy

Christian Science Monitor: “Harry Campbell, author of The Rideshare Guy, a popular blog for rideshare drivers, asked his 10,234 e-mail subscribers to rate their experience with Uber. Of the 453 who responded, only 48 percent are happy with their employer.”

“A common perception of the difference between Uber and Lyft is that Lyft is a better company to work for, but Uber brings in higher pay. But Uber’s claim to fame among drivers – that it offers the highest wages in the game – is slowly eroding. To increase business during the slow winter months, Uber recently cut fares for passengers, and thus salaries for drivers, in over 100 cities.”

Some drivers say “weekly expenses like gas, toll fees, insurance and car maintenance detract the company’s impressive averages. In a company report last year, 11 percent of drivers said they actually lost money after being their employment with Uber.”

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Relativity is a Poor Theory at Retail

The New York Times: “In some ways, what we experience as consumers is like what we experience when we listen to music or lift a heavy object. For example, we are more likely to notice that a drumbeat is loud if we have been listening to, say, a gentle violin. And we will notice that we are lifting extra pounds if they are added to a lightly packed suitcase. The same additional weight is barely noticeable in a heavy one. Vision, heat perception, smell and taste all obey a similar law: Perception is largely a relative mechanism.”

This dynamic manifests itself when we compare prices: “We tend to focus on the percentage rather than the amount we save, and fall prey to a mental illusion. After all, when your shopping is done, it is dollars — not percentages — that will be in your bank account … Ofer H. Azar, an economist at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, asked consumers in the United States how much they needed to save to justify spending an extra 20 minutes … When shopping for a $10 pen, they required only a $3.75 savings, on average. For a $30,000 car, though, they needed $277.83 for that 20 minutes.”

Less affluent shoppers are less likely to fall prey to the illusion: “Poorer people tend to value a dollar more consistently, irrespective of the context. It is not simply that those with less money pinch more pennies; it is that they are compelled to value those pennies in absolute rather than relative terms … To them, a dollar has real tangible value. A dollar saved is a dollar to be spent elsewhere, not merely a piece of token accounting.”

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Quote of the Day: Benjamin Friedman

“On the whole, the problem with new books is that there’s a list price set by the publisher and a discount price that’s also set by the publisher. So, as a new bookseller, you have no control over what the book sells for or what you pay for it. With used books, if you’re smart, you find ways to get them cheap, and you decide what you price them at.”

“As a general rule, on any book, a used bookseller is probably making twice as much profit as a new bookseller. And that’s the difference between making it and not making it, because the profit margins on new books are razor-thin. At a used bookstore, no one is getting rich, but you can make enough to stay alive.” – Benjamin Friedman, co-founder, Topos Bookstore Café, as quoted by The Awl.

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Whole Foods: New Limits on Local Store Autonomy

The Wall Street Journal: “Whole Foods is shifting more responsibility for buying packaged foods, detergents and other nonperishable items for the more than 430 stores to its Austin, Texas, headquarters. It is deploying software to simplify labor-intensive tasks like scheduling staff and replenishing shelves … The measures are part of a broader push to beat back competition from retailers such as Kroger Co. and Costco Wholesale Corp. that have expanded their range of natural and organic products, and frequently offer them at lower prices.”

Co-CEO John Mackey: “We want to evolve the structure in such a way that we take out redundancy and waste, and at the same time though, we’re not diminishing the culture, the empowerment efforts that make Whole Foods Market special.”

“The relative autonomy Whole Foods has long granted its stores and regional units—now 12—reflects a bedrock principle of Mr. Mackey, who helped open the first Whole Foods in 1980 … The model worked well for Whole Foods for years as it grew rapidly and established itself as the leading retailer of natural and organic groceries … But the need to offer more competitive prices is stepping up the pressure for greater efficiency.”

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The Fallacy of Data vs. Intuition

In a Wall Street Journal interview, Hilary Mason of Fast Forward Labs illuminates the relationship between data and intuition:

“One of the common fallacies is that data is opposed to intuition. Data is a tool for enhancing intuition. When I worked at the social-media company, one day the CMO of a frozen-breakfast-sausage brand came into our office. The guy said, ‘I want to know what may customers do on the social web.’ And I said, ‘Great. So first we’ll figure out who your customers are.’ He said, ‘I know who my customers are. They’re moms in the Midwest.’ I said, ‘How do you know?’ He looked at me like I was crazy. He said, ‘They’re my customers. I’ve been doing this for years.'”

“He was not wrong. He had many customers. We didn’t know if they were moms, but they were looking at mom-type things. They were in the Midwest. But he missed a cluster of customers in Texas, and they were into motorcycles and man things. He missed a cluster in the Northwest who were anti food additives [who liked his product because it] did not have these additives. We were able to show that his intuition was in no way wrong. But he was missing things that were too small to come up on his human radar.”

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Craft Breweries Turn to Mobile Canning

USA Today: “Mobile canning services, which started becoming popular about three years ago, are turning the smallest of breweries into legitimate players in America’s craft beer craze. They bring equipment to breweries and package beer on site, saving breweries tens of thousands of dollars on equipment. ICan, one of two mobile canning services with a strong presence in Indiana, charges breweries as little as $1,600 for a 100-case run.”

“Mobile canning is growing along with America’s craft beer scene. Last year the USA surpassed 4,000 breweries for the first time since at least the 1870s, according to Brewers Association and U.S. Census Bureau research. New breweries are looking for ways to distribute their products, and mobile canning is providing a key to the marketplace.”

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BMW Modulates Its Amplitude Attitude

BMW Blog: “BMW was the first automobile company to ditch AM radio functionality, with its recent i3 electric vehicle, and it caused quite a stir among i3 owners. The reason for the drop of one of America’s oldest broadcasting mediums is that the electromagnetic interference from the electric drivetrain of the car blocks out the AM signal, making it fuzzy and choppy.”

“Most Americans, and nearly everyone else around the world, feel as if AM is a dead technology and won’t be around much longer, so there’s no fuss there. However, as it turns out, nearly 3 million Americans listen to AM radio everyday, tuning in to local broadcasting stations, many talk radio stations and most broadcasted sports radio.”

“So due to AM radio’s loyal following, many automakers, BMW included, are looking for a way to reduce and eliminate the interference that comes from electric vehicles … If someone pays that much money for a car, regardless of what kind of car it is … they want to be able to listen to whatever kinds of radio they want.”

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Fresh Air: Glade Discloses Ingredients

Huffington Post: SC Johnson is “the first major player in the household chemicals industry to list 100 percent of the ingredients used to create fragrance in one of its lines of scented products, the Glade Fresh Citrus Blossoms collection of wax melts and air fresheners. That includes the chemicals ordinarily glossed over with catch-all phrases like natural ingredients or essential oil.”

“Its goal, in part, is to create a new standard of transparency that would challenge upstart competitors, who sell themselves as greener alternatives, to disclose every single component in their fragrances.”

“It’s important to lay it all out there for the scrutiny of the world what goes into our products if consumers are going to trust us,” says Herbert Fisk Johnson III, the company’s chairman and chief executive. “In the absence of information, people tend to think the worst.”

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Starbucks Gallery & Café Features New Artists

The Art Newspaper: “Starbucks has started selling art from a new coffee bar in Chelsea … with an exhibition of paintings and drawings by the young US artist Robert Otto Epstein, each of which was on sale for between $1,000 and $3,000 … A spokeswoman for Starbucks described the initiative as a ‘pilot programme’ and declined to give any more details on whether the company plans to expand its sales of art. She added that the company will commission ’emerging artists to make site-specific works—mostly murals—or to help us build a catalogue of works for customers to enjoy and discover through display in our cafes around the world.'”

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