Business idea: The Anti-Telemarketer

Not sure how the telemarketing scene is evolving elsewhere but in my city, I’m receiving about 2-3 telemarketing calls a day.  More than half are scams.  It’s getting annoying.

So I thought I’d come up with a solution.

Not long ago, Google debuted its Duplex AI.  This AI assistant is capable of navigating phone calls.  It’s pretty darn amazing.  If you’ve yet to see it, here’s a link:

 

So it looks like Google’s new AI assistant is going to be capable of a whole host of tasks, perhaps even handling telemarketers.  Here’s what I’m envisioning:

When your phone rings and you see a number you don’t recognize, feel free to let your AI assistant answer the call for you.  If it turns out to be a legitimate call and someone you’d like to speak with, your AI should be able to navigate that conversation quickly and effectively.  Perhaps your phone would ring a second time with the AI alerting you with who the caller is and what they’re looking for.  If, however, it wasn’t someone you wanted to talk to, the AI assistant would know how to navigate those calls as well.

For all the calls that you don’t want to answer, let’s put them in 3 categories.  First would be legitimate calls that you just don’t want to answer for whatever reason.  Maybe you’re hanging out on a beach with your friends over the weekend and your boss is calling… probably about those TPS reports.  Your AI assistant can let your boss know that you’re currently unavailable, take a message, and say that you’ll return that message at your earliest convenience.  Or maybe it’s a call that you’d like to take but you’re in the middle of something important.  Whatever the case may be, the AI should be able to navigate these conversations well enough to pass along a message.

The second category would be legitimate telemarketers.  We’re talking about legitimate businesses reaching out for cold sales or surveys.  For these, perhaps your AI assistant would know which businesses you have accounts with to better understand which promotions you might actually be interested in.  Rather than you having to go through the whole phone call to find out what the actual pitch is, your assistant could navigate that conversation and turn it into a brief text message for you.  For everything else, the assistant could quickly and politely say that you’re not interested, and request that you be taken off their call list.

The third category, and the one that inspired this idea, is the scam-based telemarketers.  Fuck those guys.  This week alone I’ve received:

  • Calls from places like Burundi, Somolia, Samoa, Seychelles, and Kalamazoo.  As I understand it, the calls hang-up before you can answer.  When you call back, you’re charged for your time on that call.
  • Calls from China telling me that I’m in big trouble relating to real estate purchases and government corruption.
  • Calls telling me that I’ve been busted for tax evasion and I need to reach out to my local tax office immediately.

Each is a robo-call, meaning that their process of generating leads is full automated and requires very few resources on their part.  My approach has been to pick up the calls and to hang up as soon as I recognize what it is.  But it’s not much of a solution as the calls keep arriving.  They might even be increasing in volume.  So how exactly do you fight back?

This idea is inspired by a TED Talk I saw a while back.  The speaker was being solicited by an email scammer.  Something to the effect of the Nigerian princess scam but it had to do with gold bullion, if I remember correctly.  The speaker, like most of us, was able to pick up on the scam rather quickly.  But rather than ignore, he thought he’d engage with the person on the other end for some fun. The email chain became rather entertaining as the speaker was able to get the scammer to use some questionable ‘code words’ in their communications.  At the end of the day, the speaker did this because he knew that for every minute this scammer spent targeting him, was a minute he wouldn’t be able to spend targeting someone else.  I appreciate his efforts as I’ve attempted the same thing… but there has to be a better way.  Enter Google Duplex.

Imagine that tax-scam robo-call running into your AI assistant:

Robo-call: “The reason behind this call is to notify you that we have registered a criminal case against your name concerning a tax evasion and tax fraud in the federal court house.  So if you want any further information about this case, please press 1.   If we don’t receive a call from your side, please be prepared to face the legal consequences, as the issue of tax is extremely serious and time-sensitive. So have a blessed time. ”

AI: “1”

Scammer: “(In a thick Indian accent) Hi my name is Nicky Johnson, how may I help you today?”

AI: “Hi, I received a call today about owing some taxes and I’d like to pay them before I get in trouble”

Scammer: “Thank you for calling.  This is a very urgent matter and we need to resolve it quickly before you’re forced to pay any penalties.”

AI: “Thank you so much for letting me know.  What do we do next?”

Scammer: “Can I start with your name and social security number?”

AI: “which name?”

Scammer: “Your first and last name, and your social security number”

AI: “OK.  Sure, but which one?”

Scammer: “What is your first name?”

AI: “Hue”

Scammer: “And your last name”

AI: “Jazz”

Scammer: “Thank you Mr. Hue Jazz.  Now may I have your social security number?”

AI: “Which one?”

Scammer: “Your social security number, sir.  It’s 9 digits and on all your tax filings”

AI: “Oh, OK”

Scammer: “Do you have it sir?”

AI: “Have what?”

Scammer: “Your social security number”

AI: “I don’t know what that is”

Scammer: “Never mind sir, we can proceed without it.”

AI: “What?”

Scammer: “We need to receive payment as soon as possible to avoid putting a lien on your assets.  I can walk you through that now.”

AI: “OK”

Scammer: “To make a payment, you’ll have to go to our website.  Do you have a computer in front of you?”

AI: “Yes”

Scammer: “The website is http://www.-”

AI: “Is that an upper-case WWW or a lower case www?”

Scammer: “It doesn’t matter, both will work”

AI: “OK.  Do I need internet for this to work?  I don’t think this computer has internet.”

Scammer: “Yes you will need internet.  Do you have a computer that has internet?”

AI: “Yes, but I’ll have to start it up.  You don’t mind waiting do you?”

Scammer: “No, that is OK.”

AI: Thanks, it’ll just take a few minutes”

(few minutes passes)

Scammer: “Is your computer ready”

AI: “Not yet.”

(few more minutes passes)

Scammer: “Ready now?”

AI: “Almost.”

(few more minutes passes)

Scammer: “Sir, your computer should be ready by now.  Are you sure it’s working?”

AI: “Not sure.  The screen is still black.  Can you help me fix my computer?

 

I’m not a very vengeful person, but something about this just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.  The reality is that you could customize your AI to give a variety of answers and drag the conversation out in all sorts of entertaining directions.  The best part though, is that for every minute they’re engaging with your AI, they’re not scamming someone else.  If enough people took this approach, it would shift the balance of power.  I can’t imagine people would be all too keen to put the resources into a scam-based call center knowing that 99% of their leads were AI assistants just messing with them.

While it would be fun to call this the ultimate solution to telemarketing and over-the-phone scams, it’s not.  This would be a brilliant solution to the current mode of telemarketing and over-the-phone scams but the situation would evolve.  The most natural evolution I can think of is the scammers and telemarketers switching over to a Google Duplex-esque robo-call.  But if it’s your Google Duplex AI Assistant that is answering the calls… it becomes AI VS. AI.  I’d take a front row seat to that…

The Companion Experience (Part 2)

In my last post, I explored the idea of bringing one of our oldest professions into the 21st century.  I tried to make a case for understanding sex as a natural element of the human experience rather than something to be pursued or withheld for social gain.  I also tried to make case for why it would improve the lives of everyone involved.  Much like the legalization of alcohol and now cannabis, perhaps it’s time to let go of our prejudice and do what’s sensible for all those involved.  But it’s not enough to say we should do it. We need to find a way to do it with intelligence and compassion.

 

While I’m inclined to say that the first step is legalization, it really isn’t.  The first step is education for the purpose of destigmatization.  From what I can tell, the general public has a rather skewed idea of what prostitution is and very little interest in how it could be done better.  A dear friend once told me that you have to plant seeds in fertile soil.  I think it would be education that makes this soil fertile.

I’ve often said that dishonesty is the most counter-productive force known to humanity.  If we could have a honest look at who uses escorts and why, I think our perception would change dramatically.  There are certainly some seedy characters in the mix, but there’s also a full spectrum of service providers and clients.  From high-powered women looking to unwind, to couples looking to spice things up, to newbies looking to learn a few moves.. there are a lot of reasons to look to this industry.  And for those with a high sex drive, a desire to pleasure, an affinity for polyamory and an ability to tune into the well-being of others…. there are a lot of good reasons to be interested in the profession.  If we could show people that this doesn’t have to be about exploitation, we could open their minds to what this could be about.

If we could get to the point where the general public is willing to look at this industry with an open mind, they might start to value an approach which was both intelligent in its design and compassionate to all of those involved.  In my last post, I described what I called the companion experience.  It was this idea that sex was only one element of companionship, and not even a mandatory one.  It was recognizing that  within the human experience, we have gaps in our ability to connect with others in the way we want.  Some may lack the time to generate those connections, while others may lack the social skills.  Whatever the reason, having those connections are an important part of being a balanced and healthy human being.  History has shown us that there has always been those in search of companionship and those motivated to provide.  This is connecting those dots in a respectful and productive way.

So once minds are open and people are willing to leave their prejudice behind, it’s time to roll out a plan.  Something where a reasonable person could say, “It might not be for me, but I understand this and I would support it”.

Step 1 would be legalization.  There are certainly criminal elements within the industry today, but that has more to do with it being illegal than the actual profession.  We saw that with alcohol in the 1920s and we’re seeing that again with cannabis today.  When you make it legal, you bring it into the light.  Good operators shine while bad operators go out of business.  For those who continue to treat the industry as one of exploitation, there will be fewer and fewer places to hide.  The transition wouldn’t be immediate, but every journey starts with a first step.  Legalization would be the first step in creating a culture that encouraged the positive elements while discouraging the negative.

Step 2, would be regulation.  Most speaking about legalization and regulations as the same thing but I’ve learned to separate the two because of what they tend to mean.  Legalization, in a broad sense, refers to the public acknowledgement that something is socially acceptable.  Regulation determines the way in which we would allow it.  In the spirit of full transparency, I have some strong reservations around regulations in general.  Too often, those who are charged with the responsibility of deciding how we should allow something are incapable of deciding what’s best for all those involved.  Sometimes it’s politics, sometimes it’s prejudice, sometimes its a lack of motivation, and sometimes it’s just incompetence.  That said, perhaps we can set a few ground rules:

  1. A companion will always have the ability to choose their own clients.
  2. A companion will always reserve the right to excuse themselves from a situation
  3. A client will always reserve the right to excuse themselves from a situation

Beyond this, I’m having a hard time coming up with any other rules which should always be in effect.  I’m not saying there aren’t any others, but I’m having a hard time coming up with rules for which I can’t find obvious exceptions.  I’m also not much for rules…

What tends to be more effective than rules is a culture.  I’ve given a lot of thought to what culture is an where I keep landing is a collective intelligence.  So rather than write a set of rules which may or may not encompass all the complexities of something like this, how about we collectively and intelligently find the best ways of moving forward?  I’ve learned that with complex issues like these, there is no right way of doing something, only a continuum of finding ways to do it better.

I suppose this leads us to step 3.  As much as the experience between the companion and client is one of human connection, the exchange of value for a service is a function of business.  One reason why I’m not a fan of regulation is that those with the best policies tend to run the best businesses.  We would want to create ground rules for the respect and safety of those involved, but we would also want great businesses to have the freedom to find the best path to lift this industry up.

I’m not entirely sure what the best approach here would be as I can’t think of any modern examples where this approach has been applied.  That said, I have a few ideas:

  1. Ahead of legalization and regulation, build a think-tank consisting of the world’s most respected industry professionals and clients.  Provide them with an open-minded board of advisers who would be able to provide insight with respect to government relations, general and sexual health, technology, psychology, law enforcement, education and anything else that would help us make informed decisions.  Then ask them to produce a set of best practices which could be used as a template for all those looking to get involved in the business of companionship.
  2. Allow the members of this think-tank to play the role of adviser to a government funded investment firm with the mandate of investing in the companionship industry.  The best way to change someone’s behavior is to give them an option they’re more interested in.  The best way to move this industry from the black market to a place of respect, is to provide a better option to all those who are looking.  The way in which you accomplish that is by supporting a new generation of businesses who are looking to do it better.   And there’s no better way to do that than by giving opportunities to the entrepreneurs with the right motivations.
  3. Provide the opportunity for companions to work as independents.  I’m not a fan of forcing someone into the employment of someone else.  If this is your chosen profession, there should be a way for you to be your own boss and not have to compromise on things like personal safety.  Perhaps some of the businesses would be like the Air Bnb of companionship… where your accommodation comes with some in-house entertainment.

With a new generation of businesses equipped with the knowledge, motivation, and resources to do things better, I think we would see a massive transition from the black market to the white market.  The best companions would seek out employment with the best businesses, or perhaps choose a more independent route.  Clients could align themselves with the businesses which expressed values they identified with, just like we do with other businesses.  As certain businesses developed competitive advantages over others, and clients ebbed and flowed accordingly, better policies would be developed.  Ultimately, we’re trying to set the foundation for an industry which could evolve alongside our best understanding of it.

Part of me is tempted to unload some more ideas on best practices… things like:

  1. The disclosure of sexual health.
  2. The Education and training of companions to be more than just sex workers.
  3. Perhaps a database of clients so companions can better understand who they’re getting involved with.
  4. A blacklist of clients who have crossed lines which should not be crossed.
  5. Mediators who can peacefully and compassionately resolve disputes as they arise.
  6. I’m not the biggest fan of licenses which can act as barriers to good operators, but what about certifications?  Being certified in different practices and techniques would be one direction.  We could also talk about being certified by an organization which represents for integrity and high standards.

 

No shortage of ideas… but that’s mostly because there’s so much room for improvement.  But I’m careful to remind myself that I don’t have all the answers.  This isn’t about the few telling the many how it should be done.  This is about recognizing and appreciating a dynamic which has existed for at least as long as human nature.  It’s about recognizing that a modern society has room for this and opening the door to finding our best way of doing it.

Business Ideas: Disney’s Streaming Service

A few days ago, Netflix passed Disney in market-cap, suggesting that Netflix is now worth more than Disney.  I’m reminded that the price and value of something are two very different things.

When I heard about the news that Netflix had been priced above Disney, I had to do a double-take on why.  Sure Netflix is the most popular streaming service today and comes with great original content but does that really make them more valuable than Disney?  Let’s not forget that Disney goes well beyond classic original content… they own ABC, ESPN, Pixar, Marvel, and Lucas Film among others.  If we’re going to compare the ability to create content, Disney wins hands down.  So what gives?

It’s the platform.  Disney puts most of their content through traditional media channels like movie theaters or cable TV.  You’ll see plenty of their content available on places like Netflix as well, but that’s usually well after the content is first released.  The brilliance in Netflix is that they were the first to truly give us the media experience we were looking for.  We wanted to pay a low fee each month, to access a large library of good, commercial-free content.  I would go so far as to say they were the one’s who kicked off this ‘golden era of TV’.  Letting the people choose what they want to watch, when they wanted to watch has really given a voice to the audience.

I cut the cord about 5 years ago.  Between YouTube, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and the good ol’ inter-webs, I can watch just about anything I want at any time I want.  I have a pretty decent hardware set up with a 4k TV and a Bose sound system.  Even when it comes to watching movies, I’m coming up with fewer and fewer reasons to leave the house.  Every once in a while something comes out that I want to see on the big screen like Inifinity War or a Star Wars movie, but even those… I’d probably be just as happy to watch at home if I could get a decent copy.  And I can’t help but think that this is where things are headed.

Over the years, movie theaters have been struggling to maintain attendance amidst this transition.  Between parking, food, and a movie ticket, heading to the movies once costs about as much as a monthly subscription to every major streaming service.  The value just isn’t there anymore.  I’ve watched them try to adapt over the years and I can’t help but think that I’m watching a business model die.  And I see a remarkable opportunity for Disney to put a rather large nail in that coffin.

Next may, Avengers 4 will be released.  This is primed to be one of the largest movie events in the history of movies.  The Marvel franchise has been moving towards this milestone for the last 10 years and the world will be watching.  In all likelihood, it will break all major box office records.  Or… maybe Disney could do something genius.

There’s a good chance that the demand to watch Avengers 4 when it first comes out will be higher than any movie ever made.  So why waste all that good mojo on a dying business model?  Why not use this as an opportunity to do something that breaks the mould?  Something special?  Why not use Avengers 4 to launch Disney’s streaming platform?

For anyone in the know, Disney’s been working on this for a while now.  My guess is that it should be ready for next year.  The future is streaming, so use this as an opportunity to launch your platform.  It could be something simple like sign up for Disney’s streaming service in April and receive access to Avenger’s 4 on the day it’s released.  Netflix currently has about 118 million subscribers.  It’s been estimated that about 175 million people saw Black Panther in theaters.  While I can’t find the data for Infinity War, it looks likely to exceed that number.  I’m rather confident they’ll debut Avengers 4 in movie theaters just like they did with Avengers 3, but I can’t help but see a huge missed opportunity.  Why not capture all of that revenue via monthly subscriptions?

Assuming that all Disney content is available on their streaming platform, they’ll have a better library of content than anyone else.  Assuming that they pull their content from Netflix, it won’t even be close.  Based on that comparison, I suspect they could probably charge $20 per month quite comfortably.  While hot movies like Avengers 4 would certainly command more, your average movie sees about 60% of the ticket proceeds back to the studio.  That number is less overseas.  Why give up all that revenue to move your content through a platform that the people are moving away from?  There was a point in time where we would look forward to watching a movie in our living rooms among friends and family.  Why not look to celebrate that once more?

In all seriousness, I think the best move they could make would be to make it available through both channels.  For those who still want to see it on the big screen, make it available to them.  But for everyone else who would rather watch it at home, make it available for them as well.  I think that if you let the people decide, you’ll see an overwhelming demand for streaming.  And is that really so bad?  No more overpriced movie food.  No more overpriced parking lots.  No more bad seats.  No more line ups.  Life just seems to get a lot better.

And how does this Impact Disney?  My guess is that they’d be praised for having made one of the boldest and most intelligent business decisions in the history of movies.  Or maybe that’s just my ego talking lol.  There’s a method to my madness though.

There were 175 million people who saw Black Panther.  Avengers 3 is likely to exceed that, as is Avengers 4.  Let’s put the estimate at 200 million people.  If you gave 200 million people the option of watching it at the movie theater or watching it on Disney’s new streaming service, something tells me half is reasonable.  Especially if it’s promoted in the right way.  To be fair, plenty of those people will be headed to a friends house to watch the movie and never buy the service.  But to be fair, just as many are likely see a best-in-class streaming service and sign up shortly after.

Fully aware of the speculative nature of this exercise, let’s run with it just a bit further.  If half of the 200 million people estimated to watch Avengers 4 opt to watch it via Disney’s new streaming service, and the people who watch it without signing up are equal to those who watch it and then sign up… we’re talking about a 100 million subscribers landed in the first month.  Netflix is at 118 million subscribers. Now imagine what things would look like if Disney committed to releasing all their films on this platform?  Between Avengers 4 and Star Wars 9, you’d probably have a couple hundred million subscribers by the end of the year.  Imagine that.

My guess would be that they double their market cap within that year.  And this is the genius in being bold enough to give the people what they want.

Business Ideas: Take-a-Tic App

So I was at the city’s development permit office the other day and just like the DMV or any other government run admin set-up, they asked me to take a ticket and wait for my number to be called.  Problem is that this office takes about a day to get through the queue.  No joke, I’ve shown up at 9am up in the morning, only to be told at 445pm that they wouldn’t be able to get to me today.

Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.  I did arrive early in the morning and I did take a ticket but I didn’t stay there all day.  The ticket system that they have is digital and there’s a city URL which lets you monitor your queue so that you can go about your day and pop back in when your number is close.  That’s definitely a step up from having to commit and entire day to waiting in that line without knowing if they’ll get to you… but not by much.  It did however give me an idea.

A few years ago, a new steakhouse opened up in a trendy part of town and apparently it had the nicest patio in the whole city.  A few friends and I were hanging out at a friend’s place a few blocks away and thought we’d try them for dinner.  When we arrived, we were told that it would be an hour wait.  We were about to decline but they suggested we take what looked like a puck with a bunch of blinking lights on it.  Apparently, this contraption would blink and buzz when our table was available.  We figured sure, why not.  We went to a restaurant a few doors down and started with a few drinks but ended up ordering food anyways.  Ironically, the thing didn’t buzz until we were back at my friend’s place a few hours later.  Now it’s a coaster.

That was the first time I had seen one of those, but I’ve seen them plenty more since.  I don’t like it.  There’s a better way of doing this.

What if… there was an app for that?

Let’s call this app take-a-tic, a shameless rip off of a friend’s company, Picatic.  I swear I’ll come up with a better name if I ever pull the trigger on this.  Anyways, the idea is that this is line-up management software.  Whether you’re a restaurant, a city by-law office, or somewhere in between, this just seems… more efficient.

Imagine walking into the DMV and seeing a crowd of people that probably amounts to a wait time of at least an hour.  Ain’t nobody got time for that.  So you head to the front counter and ‘take-a-tic’.  Instead of getting a piece of paper with a number on it, your position in the queue is loaded into your app.  It would be fun to think of all the paper we’d save but I’m far more interested in all the time we’d save.  Imagine being able to leave and getting a notification of when you should head back.  Imagine the app using your GPS, knowing how far you’ve gone, how long it’ll take to get back, and then takes that into consideration for when to send you a reminder.  Imagine being notified at the most inconvenient time and being able to hit the snooze button and let a few people go ahead of you without losing your place in line.  Not bad right?

While the convenience is certainly there for the user, it needs to make sense for the business as well.  There are more demands on our time than perhaps ever before and when a business says their cost savings is more important than your time.. it tends to not go over well.  When you show your customers that you value their time, you tend to end up with happy customers.  As with any scalable app, data analytics come into play and in this case, could help businesses better manage their queue.  Finally, and perhaps the most obvious: cost savings.  Without any need for hardware or physical tickets, the only real cost is the subscription to the service.

My first thought when looking to poke holes in this was nobody’s going to download an app just to wait in your line.  If they have the choice between that and the blinking coaster, they probably take the blinking coaster 8 out of 10 times.  But… what if everyone used the same app?  What if you downloaded the app for dinner a few weeks ago, but through out the year was able to use it at several other businesses?  What if every long lineup was equipped with this tech?  Well, now it has merit.  And if everyone is using it, it opens up a few more possibilities.

What if you were thinking about going to the DMV today but wasn’t sure about how to schedule it in?  What if you could open your app, search the DMV, and see what their queue was like today?  What if it came with comparisons to last week and this time last year?  What if you could even jump in the queue from home?  I’ll admit that last one might create more problems than it solves.. but maybe not.

If you were to give someone the ability to lineup from home, then you’re likely going to boost your no-show rate.  But what if there was a way to screen for that?  If everyone was using the app, perhaps businesses would have the ability to view a user’s no-show rate.  Or maybe it would make sense for the business to set the bar for who can line up from home.  For example, I probably show up to 95% of my commitments on time or early.  If a business could see that, they would have no issues with me jumping in the queue from home.  But lets say my no-show rate on the app was 50%, businesses would have the option to bounce that request.

What this all amounts to is efficiency of time.  I’m the first to avoid a place if it has a long line up.  45 minute wait for brunch?  No thanks.  Line up to get in the club?  Ya right.  Might be able to fit you in at the bar in about an hour?  Bite me.  But there are some lines you can’t avoid.  For those, I’d love to have access to something like this.  If it was mass-adopted, imagine how many hours could be used more efficiently.  Who knows, something like that might even boost GDP, haha.

The Future of Advertising

Part of my degree was in marketing so I tend to see advertising through a different lens than most.  The other part of my degree was in psychology so I can’t help but see the psychological component as well.  One dynamic which I find particularly interesting is in how we actively tune out the noise for traditional advertising, but when we see someone we respect engaging positively with a brand, we take note.  The Starbucks cup or the Lululemon tote bag may be a bit played out today, but both are great examples of how this works.

Years ago, I was watching TV and noticed how the characters on the show had to avoid mentioning specific brands – likely because they didn’t have approval and seeking approval would’ve required legal paperwork and perhaps a fee.  In certain instances, it actually made for rather awkward speech.  In reality, we actually reference brands and products on a regular basis, in our regular speech, for the sake of accuracy.  Which means that not being able to use brand names in certain areas of media actually hurts the dialogue.  Wouldn’t it make sense to write the dialogue as you would naturally, and then approach the brands mentioned in a positive manner for ad revenue?

There are certainly some complexities to this strategy, but I doubt they’re beyond our ability to solve.  Based on how I’ve seen things progress, I think this is actually being done now to some extent.  What a concept, letting a character talk about their Mercedes or BMW, let them talk about their iPhone or Android, let them talk about their favorite restaurant or coffee shop.  Script writers would have to maintain integrity so that it didn’t come off as a plug or mini-infomercial, but I don’t think that would be too difficult.  The idea isn’t about sneaking an advertisement into something we’re already paying attention to, it’s about letting a brand impression exist where a brand impression would already naturally exist.

 

So maybe we’re starting to turn that corner, but where does it go from here?  I have an idea.

Right now, AI and computer vision allow YouTube to recognize most copy-written material and then defers action to the original owner.  As AI and computer division develop further, they won’t just be able to recognize the content, they’ll be able to recognize what’s in the content.  Watching a movie, and see a sweet car that you’ve never seen before?  No problem, hit pause, hover your mouse over the car and see a few quick details.  Super interested?  Click on the details and you’ll head straight to the website.  Now imagine being able to do that with clothes, foods, toys, and everything else.

If we approach this correctly, I can’t help but think it would be a massive win-win for everyone.  No more advertisements.  No more commercials.  No more jingles.  And especially no more manipulation of public perception in the hopes of earning a sale from someone who doesn’t actually need or want your product.  If this done correctly though, I think the biggest winners may actually be the businesses.

Rather than guessing at where to advertise, how to advertise, and how much to spend on advertising, just paying per click.  Every time someone sees a piece of media that includes your product and someone wants to know more about it, there’s your point of monetization.  Next-level pay-per-click advertising.  Effectively, you’re only paying to connect people to your product, when they’ve shown an interest in your product.  Not only is that a more streamlined approach, it builds trust rather than degrades it.

Efficiency is my North Star.  When someone sees something they’re interested in, they want to know more about it.  If they learn more about it and they want to buy it, they want a quick and easy way to complete that transaction.  Businesses want to provide those details and the option of that transaction to potential customers, however, they would prefer to only spend their advertising budget on people who are interested.  This strikes me as a remarkably efficient approach compared to what’s out there now.

Thinking it through a little further, I know there are bound to be a few hiccups.  What happens if someone you don’t like is wearing or using your product?  What if you’re just getting started and you need to get your product out there to begin with?  I could come up with a few other issues that would exist in today’s unspoken rules of advertising but I can’t help but think that it’s just not that complicated.  If you’re on the alt-left and someone on the alt-right is wearing one of your products?  Grow up.  Appreciate the extra revenue, and appreciate that if they’re wearing your stuff, you may have more in common with them than you might think.  Just getting started?  Send free products out to influencers who would appreciate them.  If you have solid product, they’ll show it off and you should end up with a cascading effect.  If you send your product out to the people who would appreciate it, and they don’t?  Maybe you picked the wrong influencers, or perhaps your product just isn’t very good.  Regardless of what obstacles I come up with, the solutions don’t seem very far away.

I’d estimate we’ll have the tools to do this within about 10 years.  Whether or not major industry players are interested in challenging the status quo is a different story though.  But this is why ‘revolutionary’ has become the holy grail of doing business.  Whoever breaks that mold, I’m rooting for you.

A Completely Automated Business

Here’s a thought…

how far are we away from kids at Harvard coming up with a fully automated business for a class project?

I said it in that context for a couple:

  1. I suspect fully automated businesses already exist in the fringe but I’m talking about something more widely applicable
  2. By the time the kids at Harvard are doing it, it’ll be big news and government regulators will have to start shifting around this potential

Imagine a company called Widgets.com.  Widgets.com is a market place for widgets where manufacturers of widgets can list their products.  Buyers of Widgets can come to the site, pick the widget they want and place an order for delivery.  When a customer places an order, the order is relayed through to the manufacturer and the manufacturer will ship the widget directly through to the buyer.

Widgets.com outsources it’s live chat and call center.  And their web design.  And their IT.  And their Legal.  And their Accounting. And their digital marketing.

Widgets.com would also have extensive data analytics that would help track key information for making strategic decisions.  These data points would include customer feedback and reviews, website activity, error tracking, legal reporting, financial reporting, and social media stats.  And anything else you wanted to include.

The Widgets.com algorithm would be capable of making executive decisions, but would aim to outsource nuanced details.  For example, if pink widgets were trending on social media, a note would go out to the digital marketing team and manufacturers of pink widgets, while a request would go to the web designer to feature pink widgets.  If the situation was more nuanced, say with a zero star review, the algorithm would track that info, forward it to a capable customer service rep and have them work to resolve the issue.

It’s actually a fun exercise because you can do this with just about any decision being made within a company.  I’m pretty sure these are the steps to building this decision engine:

  1.  Identify the cues to look for when identifying a problem
  2. Use additional cues to verify the problem
  3. Review past solutions to the problem or similar problems
  4. If a past solution has worked, use it again
    1. If a past solution works again, make a note
    2. If a past solution doesn’t work, go back to step 2
  5. If a past solution didn’t work, look to variations of solutions to similar problems.

I know that’s a bit of an oversimplification but what I’m getting at is that with enough time and insight, a top CEO could effectively upload his decision engine into a neural net.  Perhaps a decision engine wouldn’t make the best CEO for a complex company that operates in a rapidly changing environment with an actively engaged customer base… but maybe at that point, a human CEO isn’t cutting it either.

That’s where I see this going, especially because it’s already happening.  Big data analytics is an early stage version of human/digital hybrid CEO.  Right now, we’re mostly using data analytics to provide the human CEO with more information.  If the human CEO sees that everything X happens, Y needs to happen, he can automate it.  Once it’s automated, that’s the responsibility of the digital CEO.  As more information starts to get tracked, more patterns will emerge, and more automation will occur.  As that process progresses further and further, the human side is needed less and less.

I’m not sure how this will play out, but I do know that today’s pundits are suggesting that the CEO’s role will be among the last to be taken out by automation.  That before the CEO role goes digital, manufacturing will be replaced by 3D printing, warehouse workers will be replaced by robots, delivery drivers will be replaced by automated trucks and drones, and even computer programmers will be replaced by computers who programmers have taught to program.  Considering that the new Atlas looks like its about to try out for Cirque, who knows.

Reddit Might’ve Just Saved Net Neutrality

Reddit is one of my primary information feeds.  Perhaps needless to say, I’m a fan.  Over the last week or so, I’ve observed something rather significant.

First, the gaming community mobilized against EA and their release of Star Wars: Battlefront 2.  EA’s new progression system meant that most of the game’s best content had to be earned.  Doesn’t sound too bad at first, until you find out that to unlock all the game’s content, it would take over 4500 hours, or $2,100.  To put that in perspective, if you were to play for 3 hours a day, 365 days a year, it would take you just over 4 years to unlock all the content.  To put that in perspective, the next generation of consoles is expected out before then.  And that $2100 that they’re hoping you’ll spend?  That’s above and beyond the $80 price tag for the game itself.  Short-sighted greediness for sure, but something was different this time.

Someone on Reddit had a rant, and EA replied with a classic, corporate speak, disingenuous answer.  I won’t bother repeating the entire reply as the opening sentence says it all:

“The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.”

I’m tempted to pick it apart, but I’d just be pointing out the obvious.  The response though, was something special.  That reply, became the most down-voted comment in the history of Reddit, earning over 600,000 demerits within just a few days.  Not only did this make the news across several major outlets and cause the execs at Disney to check in on EA, but EA also froze the in-game payment system until further notice.  A win?  Maybe,  but the gaming community isn’t buying it (literally) as they suspect EA will just unfreeze the payment system once enough gamers have caved in.  Well fortunately for the gamers, sales are down significantly compared to the game’s first installment and that’s starting to weigh on EA’s stock price.  Effectively, the gaming community found a way to mobilize on Reddit to deny EA the opportunity to make a really dumb decision.  All within a few days.  All with a few clicks.  Very interesting.

Among all the gaming hoopla, I saw a post that said something to the effect of, ‘If we cared half as much about Battlefront 2 as we did about net neutrality, we wouldn’t have to worry about net neutrality’.  Well, Reddit responded.  Earlier this week, for about 48 hours straight, Reddit’s entire front page was entirely dedicated to the mobilization for net neutrality.  This wasn’t a banner, or an ad, or front page image, it was what seemed to be thousands of posts, across thousands of sub-reddits, all being up-voted by the masses.  I was almost a little annoyed that for 2 days, I didn’t have normal access to one of my news feeds, but I couldn’t help but be in awe of what I was seeing.

I don’t know if the effort by Reddit or any of the other tech majors will be enough to stop this repeal.  Senators don’t pay nearly as much attention to internet chatter as they do to phone calls to their office.  Assuming an average call takes 10 minutes, an office could theoretically take 144 calls over a 24 hour period, or 1008 calls over the course of a week.  There are 100 senators, meaning a little over 100,000 calls would completely occupy the senate’s phone lines for a week.  If that happened, it would probably be the documented as one of the greatest public protests of all time.

At this point, I don’t have a clue how many up votes were cast across how many posts.  If I had guess, somewhere between 2-5 million, suggesting that the support is somewhere between 20-50 times what it should probably take to get the government to reconsider their position.

There are a few problems here.  First, why is it that in a democratic framework, where the people have not asked to repeal net neutrality, is the Chairman of the FCC introducing measures to repeal net neutrality?  The second problem is that internet community, arguably the constituents of this decision, are protesting this decision more fiercely than anything they’ve ever done – and it might be ignored.  Finally, and perhaps the worst problem is that we’re encouraged to think that calls into our senators’ offices are what will make the difference here but at this point, we know that’s bullshit.  They listen when they have to, and they use public backlash as a measure of what they can get away with while still being able to get re-elected.  In all likelihood, there are only two calls that would make a difference here:  If Ajit Pai received a call from the president, or if received a call from the chairman of Verizon.  Unfortunately for us, both have vested financial interests in restricting how the general population accesses information… so I don’t see it happening.

Doom and gloom, I know.  But there’s a bright side.  An awesome bright side.  Government needs tech, desperately.  I’ve been mulling over the idea of a app that would let governments better connect and engage with their people.  The current lines of communication between politicians and their constituents minimize inbound traffic which increases the disconnect.  Without a live connection to your people, it becomes a lot easier to pay attention to the lobbyist that just took you out for a nice steak dinner.  The people need a platform that lets them engage in real time with the people making these kinds of decisions, one that’s easy to use, that people would want to use, and one which decision makers would be held accountable to.  The way that EA and Disney reacted to the Star Wars: Battlefront 2 issue was the first time that any modern platform, let alone Reddit, ticked all those boxes.  If we manage to stop the repeal of net neutrality, I might even say proof of concept.

While Reddit might be the first to demonstrate the effectiveness of a platform like this, Reddit wasn’t designed to bridge the gap between a government and its people.  To do that, it might have to be a little less rough around the edges and frankly, that’s just not Reddit.  But that’s ok, because I have a hard time thinking that I’m the only one that’s been inspired here.  I suspect there are a lot of smart people out there who are seeing what I’m seeing.  We need to revolutionize the way that a government listens to its people and I think the public is figuring that out in a hurry.

One of the greatest counter-productive efforts throughout history has been the ruling class putting a greater emphasis on maintaining their power than helping their people.  A lot of us assumed that kind of behavior died off with the monarchies but somehow it’s more obvious today than ever.  I think we have the internet to thank for that.  The internet revolutionized how we access information which means the government is having a harder and harder time controlling the conversation.   They’re still trying, and it’s confusing the hell out of a lot of people, but the truth keeps finding a way.

The best thing about this for me is that when I keep pulling at that thread and try to visual where this takes us, I start to see something pretty special. If we could create a public that’s actively engaged with the governance issues that they’re interested in, able to control the public discourse, and aware of what one another is thinking in real-time, we have a highly capable voter base that’s capable of decentralizing a government’s power.  If we can connect that voter base to governing officials who are accountable to public discourse and the ongoing engagement of their constituents, we may just be able to put everyone back on the same team and point them in the same direction.  Wouldn’t that be neat.