Reading List: 7 for 7 – April 23: Palantir > Facebook, Generative Design, Alexa With Eyes, and More…

The 7 most interesting things I’ve read over the past 7 days.
 future doors
(image credit: Pixabay)

(1) The One Thing You Should Read about AI this week: 
In March, we ran a TCS DEX event where we posed the question to our partners and clients, around whether every company should have an AI strategy. While there was general agreement about the need for an AI strategy, there was no clear starting point. This may be the challenge for most companies. And perhaps the first steps towards a strategy are gathering information and running experiments.
If you read one thing this week, read this AI paper by the McKinsey Global institute – they publish results from a comprehensive survey and analysis of AI across industries, functions, and use cases and by the relevance of the different techniques, such as Transfer Learning, Reinforcement Learning, and Deep Learning Neural Networks. If some of that sounds obscure to you, I suggest reading up a little bit as these will become common business parlance in the not-too-distant future, and clients will be asking about them. In any case, succinct explanations are provided in the paper. It will probably take you a couple of hours to read (not skim) the 40 odd pages. Here are some of the very high-level takeaways:
  1. Industries where the number of use cases are the highest, include (1) Insurance, (2) Banking, (3) Retail, and (4) Automotive & Assembly.
  2. Functions with the highest number of use cases include (1) Supply Chain management and manufacturing, and (2) Marketing and Sales
  3. Specific domains where the impact might be the highest include (1) customer service & management (2) risk modelling (3) predictive service / intervention (4) workforce productivity and efficiency (5) analytics-driven hiring and retention, and (6) yield optimisation.
Some other takeaways:
  • The highest absolute impact of AI is to be found in Retail, but Travel and transport & logistics can extract the highest incremental value over other analytics techniques.
  • Image data is the highest value, after structured and time series data, and ahead of text.
  • Challenges and limitations: (1) labelling training data (2) obtaining large enough data sets (3) explaining the outcomes and decisions in clear enough terms – e.g. for product classification or regulatory (4) transferring of findings to adjacent use cases, and (5) risk of bias in data/ algorithms

(2) Data: Facebook is a misguided amateur compared to Palantir 
Palantir is much more dangerous than FB. Why? (1) Because Peter Thiel, the founder is a man of metamorphosis – he has quixotic views of the world – such as ‘freedom is not compatible with democracy’; (2) because Palantir is a much more shadowy and secretive organisation but built specifically for next-generation analytics for powerful clients. (3) Because this kind of analytics power can be destructive if individuals go rogue – the article talks about Peter Caviccia who ended up running his own spying operation within JPMorgan in what is described in the article as Wall Street meets Apocalypse Now, and (4) because tools like this are being used by police forces such as LAPD to predict crime – but also to do that to build deep and intricate views of a lot of individuals and their lives. The article also provides a very good visual model of Peter Thiel’s incredible original Paypal team and network which includes Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Steve Chen (Youtube) and many others.

(3) Design: Welcome to Generative 3D Design 
What do you do when you need to design and build a spinal implant that needs to be appropriately strong, light and pliant? You use an algorithm-driven design process called generative design with 3D printing. Algorithmic design takes in your specifications or requirements and generates a number of options, which are developed faster than humans and enables a lot more personalisation of complex materials. In future, these will probably be custom built to specs in a way that humans simply can’t. It also uses the least amount of material possible (it’s one of the constraints/ objectives). This story in the Wired magazine talks about how Nuvasive does this using AI and 3D.

(4) eCommerce and Retail – change of guard, and disruption for the economy
This week we had a direct comparison between M&S vs ASOS: M&S is a struggling brand – losing share in apparel, and under pressure on foods. Other brick and mortar retailers like New Look are also in trouble. ASOS sales, on the other hand, hit £1.9 bn 2017 which amounted to a 33% increase. It’s also instructive to note that eCommerce contributes some 25% of British clothes retail numbers. In fact, the UK has the highest amount of online commerce (as a % of overall retail numbers – almost 18%), but the retail industry also accounts for 10% people and 10% of the economy – so significant disruptions lie ahead.

(5) Asset-light business models 
We’ve seen them in telecoms (MVNOs), in retail, and also in utilities. Lightweight, direct to consumer competitors who don’t carry the baggage of their larger competitors. They have no legacy IT and are built ground up on digital platforms, for a start, and also have a much more nimble operating model. Companies like Asos and Ovo energy are successful because they attract a particular consumer niche, operate in an agile way and are not weighed down by the legacy business and IT challenges of their larger peers (zero inventory, for example). This trend goes all the way down to micro brands in the consumer goods space. Many of these businesses will die or stay micro, but once in a generation, they will lead to the next FB or Amazon.

(6) Alexa Fashion – a glimpse of the future 
What’s Alexa’s next trick? How about a camera that can give you fashion feedback? Amazon’s Echo Look (not yet launched to the public, but on invitation only basis) has a camera and lets you take selfies and gives you feedback on what you’re wearing. For those worried about whether Amazon was listening to all your conversations, this will definitely be a step too far! This piece is a good take on the social and psychological implication of a tool like this. Of course, if you want algorithmic advice but don’t want something that invasive, you can always turn to Miquela

(7) Battery Wars 
We all know that a move to electric cars is a ‘when’ and not an ‘if’ question by now. What that means, however, is a near insatiable demand for batteries and a huge spotlight on battery technology. Currently, the minerals that go into batteries such as Lithium and Magnesium are seeing a huge spurt in demand. It turns out that DR Congo is the worlds dominant source of Magnesium. In all of this, the UK is seeking to play a leadership role in battery technology. But is it either feasible or desirable? On the other hand, Williams has been working on safer batteries which are tough-tested in the Formula E competition – where electric-only cars race, collide and crash.

Of Love and Theft In The Digital Age

In February, the month of St Valentine, I had my bag stolen. 

From a Starbucks. Just outside my office – where I go once a day, at least. I felt like an idiot. Like a naive tourist who had fallen prey to the oldest trick in the burglers’ book. One minute it was there next to my foot, and the next (or to be precise, in exactly 33 minutes), it was gone! 
As far as silver (or brushed metal) linings go, my laptop was on the table. Sadly my iPad, my scribbling pad, a spare hard drive, a USB stick, and the bag itself, which was precious, were all gone. 
The initial hunt proved useless. The Starbucks people promised to check the cctv and let me know if they saw anything. I came home feeling foolish. And with a very important lesson #1 – don’t carry the back up drive around! 
The store called me the next afternoon to say that indeed, they had seen on the cctv footage a couple of people steal my bag. It was the work of professionals. They came with purpose. One of them took of his jacked and dropped it next to him, covering my bag. They then got up and left holding the jacket but also my bag under it. These were clearly experts and could have fooled anybody. 
I felt fooled. And foolish. 
Called the police, gave them the details and they promised to check the footage. I asked if I could watch the footage. Not sure why, probably for the thrill or watching myself in a Tarrantino-esque crime sequence. Starbucks wasn’t having any of it. 
A lady left  me a voicemail to say she found my diary in a bus, but I was travelling. By the time I called her back she had destroyed the diary. The diary had the notes i had scribbled on my last holiday. When I would wake up at 5 AM in Lucknow, feeling my head still buzzing with work thoughts, and I would sit at the dining table and write and draw things out. I was emotionally attached to that process and though I no longer need those notes, it was a loss. 
The funny thing is, that was really it. The cost of the bag and spare drive weren’t that high. I had an iPad from work, which is replaceable. Nothing ‘valuable’ was lost. And yet, this is what it boils down to – the idea of theft in a digital age. 
I didn’t lose any data, but the thieves have it too. Much like the old adage about love – you can give it away and still have all of it. But this is a different kind of loss. It’s the loss of privacy, of confidentiality and of useful information falling into the wrong hands. How do you put a value to that? 
Then of course, I thought about my passwords. I have many levels of passwords and they’re all neatly structured between bank passwords, email passwords, other services, all the inconsequential sites that need passwords – i have different passwords for each levels. I also have a list of sites and passwords in a note on my laptop, a copy of which has been dutifully backed up. The list itself is cryptic, though not encrypted, but to the alert mind, decipherable. 
I changed my passwords. All the key ones, at least: financial services, emails, evernote, dropbox, and other key ones. I found an email from Facebook asking if i had requested a password change. I hadn’t but clearly somebody was trying to get into my account. 
This will play on and on in my head. Every day i’ll agonise in a new way about what else might now be in the hands of miscreants. But it was a stark lesson on the idea of theft in the digital world. Even my laptop is completely backed up in the cloud. So there would be no real loss of data. But it would be a gut wrenching loss of information and a huge violation of my personal space. Like somebody was playing around inside my mind. 
I feel wiser. And still, foolish.