My Five Predictions for 2018 From an Ever-Cloudy Crystal Ball

My crystal ball is as cloudy as ever…maybe even more so as we head into 2018. Yet, I do believe we gained insight in all directions last year, as we watched media in turmoil and the changing narrative around TV and Programmatic. As our tools dramatically advanced and drones and wearables faded into the background, the real story continues to be one about the power of human minds and emotions. To learn more about my thoughts on this, please refer to my most recent post reflecting on 2017 predictions.

2018 promises to be a year of evolution as Uber is now officially a taxi company in Europe, Amazon looks more and more like a great retailer, and Facebook is clearly a media company.

(1) In 2018, Amazon will continue to grow in importance, because as smart sellers keep realizing, it is a great storefront with an amazing backend. Amazon is a great retailer, and all retailers should begin to look and learn from their maniacal focus on their customers, wherever they may be and whatever they want to buy.

It is true that big box aggregated, non-differentiated stores are dead. But the hard truth is, they always were. They just didn’t know it. In neighborhood after neighborhood around the world, interesting stores with artisanal food, beers from obscure breweries, independent clothes designers and other retail entrepreneurs are proliferating and doing well.

Retail has shed its skin and is regenerating in many different ways. The average mall may be on its way out, but the future is not about looking at Amazon as an enemy. Instead, look to them for partnership and innovation. In 2018, what you used to think threatened your business might end up saving it.

Take a page from retailers like Ethan Allen, who partnered with Amazon, hoping to boost orders and creating new opportunities. Nike partnered with Amazon to avoid counterfeit markets abroad, to stay ahead, and to create new places to sell, even as they opened new brick-and-mortar stores. And across channels, they fostered new brand partnerships all around the world.

Amazon understands this ability to think bigger. With the push to brick-and-mortar this year and the opening of numerous fulfillment centers, they’re following the People First model that drives real sales. They understand better than anyone about my mantra, Digital is Everything But Not Everything is Digital.

(2) AI is not a magic bullet.

Computers are essential to business today, always were, but without a People First focus, they’re just computers. What we call Artificial Intelligence today goes back to “automatons” dating back to the 18th century. As Lester Wunderman said in his prolific 1967 speech at MIT, “A computer can know and remember as much marketing detail about 200,000,000 customers as did the owner of a crossroads general store about his handful of customers.”

The only question is, can a computer handle the serendipity of the human experience? Can an algorithm be programmed to understand the randomness of some of our choices? Bottom line: will the day come when machines become sentient beings? Maybe, but not yet.

October 2017’s piece, How We Feel About Robots That Feel from Technology Review addressed this narrative:

“There’s the possibility that if emotion and intelligence are inextricably linked, there’s no such thing as an intelligent robot with no emotion, in which case the question of how much emotion an autonomous robot should have is, in some ways, out of the control of the programmer dealing with intelligence.”

In other words, we know a programmer can code problem solving, but can they program real emotion?

It reminds me of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, written back in 1966 by Robert Heinlein. In the book, Mike the computer starts to have feelings. The question of soul is debated:

“(“Soul?” Does a dog have a soul? How about cockroach?) Remember Mike was designed, even before augmented, to answer questions tentatively on insufficient data like you do; that’s “high optional” and “multi-evaluating” part of name. So Mike started with “free will” and acquired more as he was added to and as he learned–and don’t ask me to define “free will.” If comforts you to think of Mike as simply tossing random numbers in air and switching circuits to match, please do.”

Let’s see how the robots feel next year. My prediction is, they won’t feel quite like we do just yet.

My view is that if and until AI — of which robots are a subset — doesn’t have serendipity, emotion, or as Heinlein puts it, a soul, then nothing will ever replace the human condition.

(3) Delivering beyond algorithms will be essential.

Let’s be clear: algorithms and AI both begin with programming by humans, which means that person’s original bias. And when the machine learning gets stuck in a world without those people, the bias only gets worse, much like a person stuck in an echo-chamber. A report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism explained way back in 2014:

“Unfortunately, it appears that much of the natural language processing, machine learning, and visualization community is stuck in a world without people.”

It continued to hit home this year. In 2017, The New York Times covered algorithms missing the mark on love, algorithms sending people to prison, and algorithms unable to filter violent video content for children. Google came under fire for racist algorithms — programmed, of course, by humans.

We have to do better, but in order to, we have to take accountability for what we do…and be self-aware of our limitations.

(4) Fake News and incredibly bad behavior need to be combated with education (and potentially regulation).

To solve the Fake News problem, we must understand that some so-called tech companies are media empires…and as such, they need to be accountable. Part of the problem is our continued inability to call these companies what they are. (Along these lines, what does Uber’s regulation portend for AirBnB and Facebook?)

I wrote about the need for so-called tech companies to regulate or be regulated this year: no one is a pass-through anymore. Right now, they’re veiled as ‘tech’ at our own behavioral expense. If we continue to allow this mentality, the dangers will persist.

We have way too many public examples of people misusing the platforms. So first and foremost, we need more education, better behavior from public figures, and more awareness of the implications of Fake News and bad behavior on social and digital channels. People are getting hurt, psychically, financially and even physically.

Although some, like Twitter, did adopt stricter guidelines, there still needs to be a wider acknowledgement and acceptance of this problem. Facebook has admitted that the algorithm cannot fully fight Fake News. Google has taken strides, but Fake News still continues to plague them. The truth is, Fake News (and bad behavior) belong to all of us, not just these behemoths.

(5) Consolidation is coming for television.

In the ‘TV is Dead’ narrative, the talk was all about cutting the cord…but really, we’ve just created a tangle of threads. These threads are now choking the consumer, so they need to somehow be reconsolidated.

In some ways, it’s easier now than it used to be. For those of you who remember TV Guide, its weekly issuance was important for the simple reason that it told us what was on and when, but in a world of on-demand it’s more about the content. It’s easy to create an interface (and there are a thousand of them, by the way), filtering for my favorites…war, history, etc. It’s pretty simple.

Plus, the shift towards creating original content keeps things competitive. Otherwise, too much on the different channels turns out to be the same, which fails to justify the aggregate cost. And, of course, let’s not forget the many who still want to watch live televised events.

Now the issues are: How do I pay for all that content without crossing too many platforms? And perhaps more importantly, who pays, and how much is it worth?

The answer, I think will be found in streamlining the viewing process. We no longer have just broadcast or cable channels, we have an internet that can deliver us anything but that is often locked into specific delivery channels. And many of those channels are actually delivering 80% of the same content. It’s the 20% of content that is different that holds your attention and makes your choices more complicated and costly.

Ultimately, 2018 is Less Omni-Channel, More Channeling the Customer. AI isn’t enough, and moving past the technology to determine what works best is still of the utmost importance. Amazon gets it. In a world where Fake News just keeps on swirling and social networks are constantly catching up to consumer needs, 2018 necessitates that thinking People First is the only way forward.

And check back with me next December to see just how cloudy cloudy is.

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