The Hub Cool News

Counter Intelligence

google-glassCosmetics counters are getting a Google-inspired facelift in the e-commerce age, reports Bee Shapiro in The New York Times (10/9/14). At Bloomingdale’s, the "latest counter program" employs Google Glass to help customers learn how to use the products they buy. "A YSL makeup artist wears the gadget while applying the client’s makeup. The video, which also includes shots of the products used, is emailed to the customer." This appeals to shoppers like Carol Koehli, who says she’s "hopeless with makeup."

Carol says she might even post her makeup session on social media. "I’m on Twitter and I have Instagram," she says. "My friends are on Facebook. We send each other pictures already. I might well do this video, too." YSL’s Google Glass initiative underscores how "the lines between department store beauty shopping and e-commerce are blurring." "A customer might notice something on a website first and then go to a store," says YSL’s Alexandra Papazian. "Or they’ll go to counter and then go home and do more research online."

Other department stores are banking on more in the way of high-touch. At Bergdorf Goodman, for instance Clif de Raita, is a star attraction at the Tom Ford counter, where he "has developed something of a cultish following. Clients report that his gentle guidance (more instructive than old-fashioned hard sell) is worth the trip to the store." Arriana Marion says Clif gives her advice on things she’s too busy to research herself. According to Tom Ford Beauty, "the company sells double the items per transaction at the beauty counter as it does online."

Vincent & Nancy

aldebaranFar from rendering public libraries irrelevant, "technology and digitized information has had the opposite effect," reports Loretta Waldman in The Wall Street Journal (9/30/14). Nowhere is this more true than at the Westport, Connecticut Public Library, which recently acquired a pair of "humanoid" robots that will "teach the kind of coding and computer-programming skills required to animate such machines." The Westport Library was also among the first in Connecticut "to acquire a 3-D printer and to create a ‘maker’ space."

The robots, named Vincent and Nancy, were "made by the French robotics firm Aldebaran," cost about $8,000 each and were privately funded. Among other things, the robots "have blinking eyes and an unnerving way of looking quizzically in the direction of whoever is speaking." They "can recognize faces" and have a "’fall manager,’ that helps them right themselves after a tumble … grunts and all. They can even ‘touch’ and ‘feel’ with the help of tactile and pressure sensors."

Maxine Bleiweis, the library’s executive director, says Vincent and Nancy are about more than just novelty, however. "Robotics is the next disruptive technology … and we felt it was important to make it available to people so they could learn about it," she says. "From an economic development perspective and job- and career-development perspective, it’s so important." The robots will also help "patrons locate books" and greet "elementary-school groups that visit the library." Vincent and Nancy will make their library debut on Oct. 11.

Oculus News

oculusThe Des Moines Register hopes virtual reality will reinvent the news experience, reports Lukas I. Alpert in The Wall Street Journal (9/22/14). The newspaper is "incorporating the technology of Oculus VR, computerized game platforms and 360-degree cameras." In this way, a story about "how a sixth-generation Iowa farming family is struggling to maintain its traditions in an increasingly globalized world of agribusiness … takes a viewer into a computerized world of cows, soybeans and grain silos."

Basically, the reader gets a sense of "roaming around a farm in Page County, Iowa." This does require "strapping on Oculus’s virtual-reality headset," but it allows viewers to "walk up to the family’s machine shop and click on an icon that places them inside a 3-D video feature about maintaining high-tech farming equipment," for example. They "can view the information in any order," not unlike a videogame. If they don’t have an Oculus helmet, they can still interact in 2-D "on any computer."

Roy Peter Clark of Poynter Institute says it has limitations. "Although we call it multimedia, most of these stories are hybrids that use the visual elements to amplify the underlying narrative," he says. "You can take a virtual tour of a building where an event occurred, but that is a different thing than having characters who are fully explained." Other limitations are that the "virtual-reality technology" makes some people dizzy, and currently only 125,000 Oculus headsets are in circulation.

Amelia’s Answers

ameliaA "stealthy newcomer" named Amelia "embodies a new approach to artificial intelligence," reports Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal (9/29/14). Similar to IBM’s Watson, Amelia "is the product of an attempt to understand how people think, rather than to copy the means by which they do it. Many traditional AI efforts try to map the human brain … But Amelia is all about turning what psychologists know about how thinking happens … rather than how it’s carried out by our neurons."

"We didn’t achieve powered flight by copying birds," says Chetan Dube of IP Soft, developers of Amelia. "First we had to understand the principles of flight." Amelia "learns from textbooks, transcriptions of conversations, email chains and just about any other text. As long as the answer appears in the data she gets, she can solve problems." She is now being tested in call centers, where the "goal is consistency — every time anyone calls, that person should get the same, correct answer," which is based on correct answers previously supplied by humans. (video)

The larger goal, of course, is to replace humans, "especially in a customer support type of situation." However, Amelia "remains, like all synthetic intelligences, merely a clever way to automate tasks" and "has no free will." She does have feelings, though. If you tell Amelia you hate her, "the three variables that define her emotional state — arousal, dominance and pleasure — are negatively affected." "Our goal here is not to just model emotions, but to use what we detect of those sentiments in decision making," says Ergun Ekici, Amelia’s lead architect.

Turing’s Test

alan-turingAlan Turing created a test to prove that machines could think the way humans do, writes Walter Isaacson in The Wall Street Journal (9/27/14). "His test, now usually called the Turing Test, was a simple imitation game. An interrogator sends written questions to a human and a machine in another room and tries to determine which is which. If the output of a machine is indistinguishable from that of a human brain, he argued, then it makes no sense to deny that the machine is ‘thinking’." The year was 1950.

Based on this test, Mr. Turing "predicted that in 50 years there would be machines that, for five minutes, could fool a human questioner 30 percent of the time." Sixty years later, this hasn’t yet happened. Even if it did, "philosophers led by Berkeley professor John Searle contend that it would be wrong to ascribe intentions and consciousness and ‘thinking’ to a machine, even if it could fool 100 percent of questioners indefinitely." Mr. Turing was challenged on this very point during a debate against a brain surgeon, Sir Geoffrey Jefferson.

Sir Geoffrey’s said he wouldn’t believe a machine "could think until he saw it touch the leg of a female machine" and "make a fool of himself." In other words, it is "appetites, desires, drives, instincts" that set machines and people apart, not just how well they answer questions. Mr. Turing’s personal life ultimately amplified Sir Geoffrey’s point. Having been arrested because he was gay, and forced to take hormones as treatment, he killed himself by eating a poisoned apple. As Walter Isaacson concludes: "Was that something a machine would have done?"

Wired Together

liz-crawfordThe future of shopping is in the ‘transactive memory’ between shoppers and brands. A Hub White Paper by Liz Crawford of Match Shoplab. Socrates was against writing things down because he believed that it was a crutch, and that people would never remember anything as a result. Socrates was a great philosopher, but as Clive Thompson argues in his recent book, Smarter Than You Think, he was wrong about this.What Socrates overlooked was that when you store certain information somewhere else, the result is a greater capacity to remember more important things.

This concept applies in a big way in today’s world, where so much of what we can’t remember on our own is stashed away somewhere in the digital universe. Thompson sees in this a huge opportunity for collaboration between people and machines, which is obvious to anyone who has ever done a quick Google or Wikipedia search to answer questions both trivial and profound. This ability effectively makes us smarter and able to perform on a higher level. Read the Rest of the White Paper.

Frictionless Exchanges

bitcoinThe future of spending is an exchange that swaps out different currencies to get the best deal, say Edward Catronova and Joshua A.T. Fairfiled in a New York Times op-ed (9/10/14). This future is made possible by the advent of the digital wallet "loaded with your dollars, credit and loyalty points." This means that "virtual assets of all sorts — traditional currencies but also Bitcoin, airline miles, cellphone minutes — are interchangeable, opening up enormous purchasing power for consumers."

For example, suppose "you want to buy an audiobook from Best Buy. It costs $16, or 1,000 My Best Buy points, or MBBPs. Your wallet contains several hundred dollars and 200 Best Buy points. The wallet software automatically determines that, at the current exchange rate … it is better to buy using the points." If you don’t have enough MBBPs, the system … finds someone — call her Hannah — with enough MBBPs for the transaction. It buys the audiobook with her points and sends it to you, and sends Hannah dollars from your account."

The killer app, then, is "frictionless exchange." Some companies will benefit by "issuing their own currencies for advertising or data-tracking purposes, or even just because the creation of a successful virtual currency or digital wallet lets companies make money by making money." Others may suffer, as they "lose value in their loyalty programs." Governments will be challenged as they lose central control over currency, but of course they will be able to "see the trades passing through our wallets," even if they "can’t compel or block them."

Silicon Zoo

silicon-zooWhere most people just see a technology, a small group of connoisseurs see a work of art, reports Nick Shchetko in The Wall Street Journal (8/28/14). "If you hold them in the sunshine, they just spit rainbows right back at your face," says Joyce Haughey, a graphic designer and collector of silicon platters – the "shiny discs" that are "diced up to yield individual chips." Joyce actually "turns electronic components into works of art."

Timothy Sears uses a microscope to appreciate the discs, and waxes poetic about them. "Like futuristic cities with roads and buildings, hundreds of millions of components are connected in vast landscapes only visible at ultraviolet magnifications," he says. Antoine Bercovici "collaborates with a friend to take colorful microphotographs of the inside of chips," sometimes exposing intentional works of art: "One H-P chip from the 1990s, code-named ‘Hummingbird,’ includes of picture of that bird … revealed under heavy magnification."

Another wafer was embedded with dinosaur images. Michael W. Davidson of Florida State University collects such rarities and displays them in Silicon Zoo, an online gallery. Wafers with "aesthetic appeal" might command $10 or $20 on eBay, while "historically significant" ones "can fetch thousands of dollars … a wafer featuring Motorola 68000 chips — a variety used in computers like Apple Inc.’s Lisa" is listed at $1,000, for example. "While they don’t gather formally, some collectors stay in touch to trade wafers and share experiences."

Design Deceit

crosswalk-buttonEytan Adar has "collected hundreds of examples of deceptive design" in technology, reports Kate Green in Pacific Standard Magazine (9/3/14). For starters, "the standard user interface on your computer — a desktop with folder and trashcan icons … hides a universe of code behind a simple, ‘usable’ facade." Then there’s "the progress bars presented on computer screens during downloads, uploads and software installations maintain virtually no connection to the actual amount of time or work left before the action is completed."

There’s a long history of such deception in technology: "In the 1960s, the hardware that comprised the byzantine switching systems of the first electronic phone networks would occasionally cause a misdial. Instead of revealing the mistake by disconnecting or playing an error message, engineers decided the least obtrusive way to handle these glitches was to allow the system to go ahead and patch the call through to the wrong number … most people assumed the error was theirs, hung up, and redialed."

So-called placebo buttons are another common example — "many crosswalk and elevator door-close buttons don’t actually work," but do "give the impatient person a false sense of agency." In the future, "true artificial intelligence systems will alter the game significantly," and may get a sense of "biological cues (variations in heart rate, skin conductance, eye movement)" and respond accordingly. This is not unlike the way humans "suss out whether it might be best to fudge the truth with someone we care about."

The End of Absence

endofabsenceMichael Harris thinks we need to limit our intake of technology just as we do fat and sugar (The Economist 8/16/14). Michael is author of The End of Absence, in which he argues that putting ourselves on a high-tech diet may be the last best hope, of those who still remember life before the web, to pass along healthier habits to the next generation. His premise is that when "our insatiable appetites — for information, stimulation, validation" — are instantly met, "the knowledge of what it is to be left unfulfilled may not."

In other words: "A culture of abundance devalues consumption. It fosters a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. Even the basic act of contemplation may suffer if idleness — when waiting for a bus, for example — is replaced with the easy entertainment offered by mobile phones. As with great music, silences are as much a part of the human experience as soaring crescendos. There is no inspiration without reflection." "Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life," Michael writes. "Your job is to notice."

Michael provides ample basis for his concern. As detailed in a Wall Street Journal review of his book (8/7/14): "Global Internet usage has expanded more than 500% in the last decade. YouTube users uploaded 100 hours of video for every minute of real time in 2013 … Google processes over 3.5 billion queries a day while each American owns, on average, four digital devices. A 2013 report found that Americans aged 18-64 spend an average of 3.2 hours a day on social networking sites."

Data Lakes

data-lakeGeneral Electric has added a "data lake" to its information ecosystem, reports Quentin Hardy in The New York Times (8/11/14). A data lake is a "method of analyzing sensor information from industrial machinery in places like railroads, airlines, hospitals and utilities. GE has been putting sensors on everything it could for a couple of years" and is now "working with an outfit called Pivotal" to look "at information from 3.4 million miles of flights by 24 airlines." As a result, "it figured out things like possible defects 2,000 times" faster than before.

GE’s William Ruh says this is only the beginning: "In 10 years, 17 billion pieces of equipment will have sensors," he says. "We’re only one-tenth of the way there." Meanwhile, "billions of humans are already augmenting that number with their own packages of sensors, called smartphones, fitness bands and wearable computers. Almost all of that information will be uploaded someplace, too," creating "a world-changing ecosystem of digital hardware and software spreading into every area of our lives."

The "relentless acquisition and analysis of digital information" might be compared to the advent of the automobile, which "succeeded through the widespread construction of highways and gas stations" and spawned "suburbs, fast food and drive-time talk radio," among other things. Already, the growing data ecosystem is enabling "businesses like Uber and Airbnb" to succeed "without assets like cars and rooms, instead coordinating data streams about the locations of people, cars and bedrooms."

Data Magic

stitch-fixThe magic of the emerging shopping experience — online or off — "comes from the data," reports Molly Wood in The New York Times (8/15/14). For e-commerce enterprises, the data enables a level of personal service that approximates — or potentially improves upon — that which can occur naturally in a store. "In traditional retail, they have the benefit in that they have real people who in theory could offer a very personalized experience," says Katrina Lake, founder of Stitch Fix, an online women’s clothing retailer.

Stitch Fix "sends its customers boxes of clothes picked by a combination of personal stylists and big data." The advantage over, say a mall or a traditional e-commerce play, says Katrina, is that it eliminates the often overwhelming array of choices. Bill Gurley, a Stitch Fix investor, says the data science involved in making this happen is significant. "There’s a 15-page profile, there are over 66 characteristics tracked and there’s a predictive heat score for every single item against every single user."

Birchbox uses a similar approach with beauty products. "We use curation and personalization as a way to make the internet have some of those fun and satisfying elements of shopping," says Birchbox co-founder Katia Beauchamp. "There is still this desire to work with somebody that you trust." Birchbox takes a similar approach at its sole physical store, where Birchbox’s online customers can provide their email address to an employee, who then directs them to relevant items, based on their profile.

Apple Seeds

apple-seedsAt the core of Apple’s organization is a school that teaches a culture of simplicity, reports Brian X. Chen in The New York Times (8/11/14). Called Apple University, Steve Jobs founded it in 2009 "as a way to inculcate employees into Apple’s business culture and educate them about its history, particularly as the company grew and the tech business changed." As with so many other aspects of Apple’s world, Apple University "is highly secretive and rarely written about."

Mr. Jobs chose "Joel Podolny, then the dean of Yale School of Management," to design Apple University. Courses include "case studies about important business decisions that Apple made," as well as the best way to share "ideas with peers." As one employee described the Apple communications ideal: "You go through more iterations until you can simply deliver your message in a very concise way, and that is true to the Apple brand and everything we do."

To communicate the concept, instructor Randy Nelson uses "a series of 11 lithographs … that Picasso created over about a month in late 1945," in which the artist began with a detailed sketch of a bull, and concluded with "a curvy stick figure that is still unmistakably a bull." (link) A course called "What Makes Apple, Apple" features a slide of Google’s 78-button remote control, and then the Apple TV remote (image), with just three — "a button to play and pause a video, a button to select something to watch, and another to go to the main menu."

Yo

yoThe biggest thing since Twitter may be an app so simple that Apple initially rejected it, reports Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal (8/11/14). Called Yo, the app’s "sole function is for a user to send the word ‘Yo’ to any other friend using the app." Apple "rejected it on the grounds that it lacked substance," but then relented, and Yo has "since been downloaded two million times, and its 50,000 or so active users have sent more than four million Yos." The app also now has "$1.5 million in funding."

What makes Yo a potential blockbuster is that it is neither a messaging app nor a social network; it is "a communications protocol," not unlike "text messages, email and Twitter." This is because it "provides any person, business or Web service direct access to the notifications tray of your smartphone … these are the alerts we see on our lock screens, and they also interrupt us whenever we’re doing anything else on our phones." The value is inherent in "how often the average smartphone owner glances at his or her phone."

The opportunity is to use the protocol to send more than just a ‘Yo’ to friend. Future iterations "will let users send a link," too, and an RSS feed, which would enable "every blogger, website and media outlet … to send push notifications." Yo will also enable users to add profile pictures and individual or organizational names. A Yo-specific app store is in the works, and already it is possible to integrate the app with services, such as "one that will let you know whether there is a bike available at a designated Citibike-sharing station in Manhattan … Israelis can also get a Yo whenever rockets are incoming."

Colliding Worlds

colliding-worldsArt and science — "the twin branches of understanding" — "have been coming back together" after drifting apart, reports Jascha Hoffman in a New York Times review of Colliding Worlds, by Arthur I. Miller (8/5/14). You may remember Arthur Miller from his previous book, Einstein, Picasso, which also showed "how the discovery of quantum mechanics inspired a generation of avant-garde artists, including Picasso, Kandinsky and Dali," who said he wanted to use "neutrinos … to paint the beauty of angels."

So, this trend dates back to "the dawn of the 20th century" and Arthur has been studying it since the 1980s. He "argues that artists and scientists have always had the same mission: to ‘fathom the reality beyond appearances, the world invisible to our eyes’." His subjects include "Neri Oxman, who is using her knowledge of bone formation to design better buildings from concrete, and David Edwards … who has come up with methods for inhaling food and beverages and transmitting odors using cellphones."

Then there’s "bio-art," or those who use "living tissues as raw material," such as "Stelarc, the Australian artists who coaxed his own cells to grow in the shape of a human ear grafted onto his left arm." In the future, Arthur envisions "working with computers made of not-yet-invented materials" and "producing theories that generate images that can be manipulated like equations." He envisions art that is "sometimes beautiful, sometimes disturbing, sometimes subversive, sometimes downright crazy, but always interesting."

Origami Robots

paper-airplaneA Harvard graduate student is creating self-folding robots out of origami art, reports Kenneth Chang in The New York Times (8/7/14). Sam Felton says the goal is "to make robots as quickly and cheaply as possible," and suggests that his origami robots (video) might be useful "on future space missions. Or perhaps the technology could one day be applied to Ikea-like furniture, folding from a flat-packed board to, say, a table without anyone fumbling with Allen wrenches or deciphering instructions."

The "paper" for these robots is actually "a flexible circuit board and Shrinky Dinks — plastic sheets, sold as a toy, that shrink when heated above 212 degrees Fahrenheit." The sheet is attached to motors, batteries "and a microcontroller," costing a total of about $100 to build. The process is "simpler and cheaper than the manufacturing process for most machines today … which are made of many separate pieces that are then glued, bolted and snapped together."

Sam must design and fold the robot, "but the hope is that the mathematics of origami will allow computer software to … create complex robots capable of doing almost any task." Origami can also "alter the properties of a material," making it "stiffer or curved or able to swing like a hinge … For example, a folded-up sheet could be unfurled on top of a building, and then made rigid, forming a roof," or possibly "incorporated into the surface of robotic limbs, floppy and flexible when reaching for an object, and then stiffening to pick it up."

Lechal Buzz

lechalA new kind of shoe buzzes to let wearers know "where to turn to reach their destination," reports Dhanya Ann Thoppil in The Wall Street Journal (7/26/14). Made by Ducere Technologies, an Indian startup, the Lechal running shoe syncs "with a smartphone app that uses Google Maps and vibrates … in the left or right shoe" to "lead the way." "The shoes are a natural extension of the body," says Ducere co-founder Krispian Lawrence. "You will leave your house without your watch or wristband," he notes, but not your shoes.

Originally, the shoes were intended "to help blind people who rely on walking canes. Canes can help the visually impaired detect obstacles, but they cannot tell them which way to face or when to turn … While testing the shoes, the company realized their potential for the sighted as well. Joggers, mountain bikers or tourists can plug in their destinations and not have to stop to check their phones as they move; they just turn when their shoes buzz. The shoes can also be used to record distances traveled and calories burned."

Lechal means "take me along" in Hindi, the shoes are protected by a total of "24 international and Indian patents." This apparently has something to do with Krispian’s past as a US patent prosecutor. The shoes "will come in red or black" and cost $100 when they go on sale in September. Krispian "says he already has orders for 25,000 pairs and expects to sell 100,000 by March." Runners aside, there are about 250 million visually-impaired people worldwide, with about 90% "in developing countries, including India."

Chat Bots

kikAn old technology is enabling new conversations between brands and consumers, reports Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal (7/28/14). Back in "the mid-1960s, MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum developed a computer program called ELIZA, which could engage in open-ended conversation with a real human being." Over the years, programmers have filled these "chat bots … with knowledge about the real world. They can also learn from their conversations," and can sound fairly intelligent.

The potential for brands is palpable. "If you could chat with a brand in the same way you chat with a friend, that’s powerful," says Ted Livingston, founder of Kik, a chat service. It is even more tantalizing given Ted’s assertion "that four in 10 US teens are active users of its service" and already "are having something like actual conversations with a half-dozen brands." For example, while touring Japan last fall, teen idol Paul McCartney used a Kik competitor called Line to "chat" with followers.

For perspective, Sir Paul has some 2 million Twitter followers, and 9.3 million Line followers. For the most part, the McCartney organization used the bot simply to send updates. Some brands remain skittish about the bots because they are still relatively primitive and if turned loose might say something wrong. However, some see chat bots as a possible customer-service tool, while others envision using them for new product launches, imbuing the brands with a distinctive voice and personality.

Mr. Conductor!

thomas-tankMattel is using wooden toys and paper catalogs to create tighter bonds with its young customers, reports Gregory Schmidt in The New York Times (7/19/14). The toymaker is also using e-commerce and a few specialty retail stores, but the big idea is to capitalize on the powerful emotional connection between children and its Thomas & Friends line. "Kids that collect Thomas are more passionate about the story line and the characters," says Geoff Walker, evp of global brands at Fisher-Price, a unit of Mattel.

Lisa Nelson, mother of 4-year-old Benny Nelson, agrees. "It’s a very creative outlet," she says. "My son talks to himself the whole time while playing with them." The brand-experience strategy takes a page from that of American Girl, also a Mattel property, which has used "direct-to-consumer" sales to produce "an 11 percent rise in gross sales worldwide … in 2013, the company’s only core brand to show an increase last year." The catalog is particularly effective, says Morningstar analyst Jaime Katz.

"Kids see it, and they want it," she says. "You have the train; don’t you want the track? It’s a complementary business." The direct-sales model also works with parents, she adds: "It’s really the parents who are driving those sales home." That the toys are made of wood is another factor, as Benny’s mom explains: "I think it’s worth the money because they last." Other toymakers, including Lego and Playmobil, have adopted similar strategies, and Geoff Walker says it is "a growth model for Fisher-Price as a whole."

SuperFanArt

superfanartHasbro is using 3-D printing technology to "generate a bit of buzz" for its My Little Pony line, reports Elizabeth A. Harris in The New York Times (7/21/14). "What 3-D printing truly empowers is the creation of artwork that maybe wouldn’t make sense for mass production, but it makes sense for a unique item," says Hasbro chief marketing officer John Frascotti. Hasbro is pursuing the concept in partnership with Shapeways, a 3-D printing enterprise known for creating iPhone cases, coffee cups and other customized items, via a new site: SuperFanArt.

The SuperFanArt idea starts "with five artists whose work will be available for order online and printed in a colorful plastic polymer that Shapeways executives describe as feeling similar to sandstone." Hasbro will first approve all designs to ensure they are appropriate, however "the artists largely have free reign" on both designs and pricing. Over time, "Hasbro hopes to expand the partnership to include more artists, more of its brands and other materials," and expects that the initiative will "extend the reach of its trademarks" while maintaining control over them.

"Instead of trying to prohibit it, they’re enabling it, and I think that’s awesome," says Shapeways chief executive Peter Weijmarshausen. Walmart, meanwhile, "has begun experimenting with a 3-D printer’s potential for producing excitement among shoppers" at Sam’s Club stores, using them to create action figures with shopper faces on them. Home Depot is selling 3-D printers, too. However, Forrester’s Sucharita Mulpuru thinks 3-D printers are more about "novelty and excitement" than business models, while acknowledging that they "will transform our lives in the future."