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Digigram Newsletter of March 2021

Welcome to the spring DIGIGRAM of 2021. Things are looking up here in California, where soon, 20% of the population will have received their vaccination against COVID-19. While life still happens mostly at home and wearing masks outside is the new normal, the overall mood is better. Hope is in the air, and most expect a return to our previous lives after the summer. While COVID appears to finally be in retreat mode, there’s no doubt that it’s profoundly changed us— and that it’s changed the use of technology, too. It’s been a terrible disease, but it’s also been a great digitalizer!


COVID accelerated the digital transformation like few have before
(Image credit: Sven Ruoss via Twitter, Dec 10, 2020).

What will remain from our forced COVID digital acceleration? I don’t think that we’ll go back to using technology as before; we’re not putting that toothpaste back in the tube. This newsletter is my wishlist for post-COVID tech trends. And please join me on March 17 to discuss our tech wishlists for post-COVID: Click here to attend, and I’ll send you the link.

I see three areas with immense potential:

#1: The (not-so) New Virtual Workplace.  Gig-jobbing, telecommuting, home-officing, co-working, $100,000 video conferencing rooms – they’ve all been around for years. But we only really learned to appreciate their full potential over the last 12 months, when we were all forced to move from mostly in-person working to working entirely remotely. When we go back to normalcy, how much of the remoting will stay? And are we ready for the next step? Has COVID-working prepared us for virtual working?

2: Automation of services: COVID gave the biggest-ever boost to e-commerce.

COVID boosted US online retail sales 2020 like nothing before (Image credit: Digital Commerce 360, January 29, 2021)

Companies without an online presence worked frantically to catch up—and companies with significant online presence reaped the rewards, customers, and profits. Online retail sales grew by a staggering 44% during 2020 vs. 15% annually in the previous 10 years.

But there’s more. Another revolution is waiting to take e-commerce and all online services to the next level—the automation of services! Customer service bots were only the beginning. There’s so much potential in industrial applications, in the service industry, and in back-office processes. AI, for example, is perfect for automating routine services at scale.

#3: “Data is the new oil:” This phrase was coined in 2006 by British mathematician and businessman Clive Humby.

Digital technology companies have overtaken oil companies as the most valuable in the world (Image credit: Leon Yeh, August 2020)

Humby used data to launch Kroger Supermarkets’ loyalty cards in the U.S. and Tesco’s in the U.K. COVID only reinforced that we’re capable of using more data to run our businesses. We can do this now, both to conduct ex-post analysis of previously impossible depths and, even more importantly, make better predictions of the future and better decisions. Why now? Several things came together: The computer chips are capable of powering the computations needed, and the clouds are here to make this computing power available and affordable to all.

Happy reading, and stay healthy during this last phase of COVID. As always, I love to hear from you and what you think about DIGIGRAM’s topics.

And please join me for the first-ever online DIGIGRAM meetup on March 17, at 9 am San Francisco time (noon on the East Coast, 6 pm in Zurich). I look forward to discussing my tech 2021 wishlist, and what you think should be added! Click here to attend, and I’ll send you the link.

Till soon, Gert


The new New Work might be virtual:

The last Digigram explored “COVID Tech,” which helps us stay productive during COVID. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that 100% remote work works reasonably well. Not for creative work, where serendipitous strokes of genius don’t happen as often when apart, but it’s OK for the other 80% of our work. And companies took advantage. They’re saving money by moving jobs to lower-cost regions, attracting new talent by offering 100% remote jobs, and slashing expenses by not renting and offering a workplace. Good tactical moves!

Once COVID is over, will we go back to normal? With office cubicles, the water cooler, and all?

Or will we build on what we got used to and move on to what comes next—virtual-working?

Is the new New Work reality just augmented or even virtual? (Image credit: Magic Leap home page, February 2021)

Remote workers could benefit from an additional layer, such as augmented reality. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown holodeck, but AR could improve the working experience, create a team atmosphere, and spark more of those “lightbulb” genius moments.

I predict that after a year of acclimatization to Zoom, going entirely virtual is not a big step anymore. Not sure? How big a step was it for you to adapt from your last water cooler chat experience to your first Clubhouse experience? See, not that big.

The usual suspects are all building suites of products to move the New Work into virtual or, at least, augmented reality. As Magic Leap says: Reality is just beginning. I’m confident that COVID accelerated a wave of innovations and a race towards the first acceptable entirely virtual-working experience.

Here are two exciting approaches to the next reality of virtual-working:

Magic Leap pivoted last year and now wants to be a “spatial computer,” replacing the static computer screen with a fully immersive AR experience for its user. There are no traces of Magic Leap’s gaming origins left on the website – it’s all about enterprise applications now.

Copresence
“Copresence” is a new way of working together virtually (Image credit: Magic Leap, February 2021)

They coined a term I’d never heard but which I find quite appropriate: Copresence. One developer describes it as “meet with anyone … as if you were in the same room.” It’s an experience that could come close to meeting in reality. Add floating whiteboards, deduct lost post-it notes.  Yes, I could do this!





Facebook is right when they say:

“Future of Work” tool suite
Facebook’s Oculus VR headset is a part of the “Future of Work” tool suite (Image credit: Facebook newsroom, May 2020)

“Platforms and devices like Workplace, Portal, and Oculus were built for a time when economic opportunity might no longer depend on geography, a time when what you do could matter more than where you are. That time starts now.”. Facebook also rode the horse of remote working by promoting their “Workplace” suite of tools meant to help remote teams collaborate and be better informed (and I’m sure leveling up to competitors Slack and Teams was a motivator as well).

The exciting part is in the top left corner of this image from Facebook’s website. It’s the Oculus headset, which Facebook includes in their business offerings, making AR/VR a part of the remote office tools suite – on par with group video conferencing, chat, timelines, video production, and live streaming. Who needs a fake Zoom background when you’ve got that?


Automation of services:

Services involve the delivery of an intangible product, usually immediately. Services can’t be trialed, can’t be stored, and rely on a leap of faith by both the buyer and the seller. The buyer only knows afterward if the quality was acceptable and if the user experience felt good. The provider only knows during delivery if they’ll stay within the estimated time and cost. Such latent dissatisfaction and distrust are problems that firms try to overcome with many measures; from freemium offers and money-back guarantees to end-user license agreements (EULAs) and contracts the size of phone books (remember those?!).

I predicted the trend of “XaaS –  Everything as a Service” in a previous DIGIGRAM. Now, I see the next wave arrive — the automation of services. Technology can now automate routine services and mediate between sellers and buyers at the same level as well-trained service associates—but faster, more scalable, and better able to continuously learn.

Unlike many humans, software is very patient – it can run for hours and hours with unchanged high precision, and without coffee or bathroom breaks. And software is precisely what we can harness to automate previously unautomatable work. This strength is especially critical in image recognition and automated decision-making. The ability to quickly compare a photo against a database of millions of other images and then make a decision is applicable in many industries. Here are examples of newly automated repetitive visual examination and decision- making tasks:

AI in agriculture: AI-equipped robots are here for fertilizing, weeding, and picking ripe fruit.

Seeking & destroying weeds: This AI robot finds its own way thru the field and its cameras find weeds and spray only them with pesticides (Image credit: Mashable and Gfycat.com, April 2019)

Ecorobotix created the first robot to drive autonomously and search and spray pesticides on weeds. AI is used twice to process images – once by cameras to position and steer the robot along the line of plants in the field, and once by cameras to photograph plants and compare them to the database to distinguish between crops and weeds. Just place this machine at the edge of a field, and it will find its way around and destroy weeds for hours on end with no supervision or taking breaks. The manufacturer also promises an impressive 90% reduction in the number of pesticides used.

AI in medicine: The same pattern is applied to medicine. Most X-ray or MRI images no longer need to be interpreted by a person. AI can determine 80-90% of images that merely confirm everything is in order. This could leave more time for highly trained radiologists to examine the remaining 10-20% of images that need careful and personal attention. A 2015 study at the Mayo Clinic called it “The radiologist’s gerbil wheel: interpreting images every 3-4 seconds eight hours a day…”. In today’s day and age, this doesn’t have to be the workday of our doctors!

AI in COVID: Here’s an example of a better way. Back in March 2020, the company TrainingData.io published a trained AI with a dataset of X-ray and CT images of chests and lungs.

AI automates lung scanning for COVID traces (image credit: TrainingData.io, June 2020)

Then, they made it available as a service to hospitals to compare images of their patients’ lungs against it to determine the severity of COVID infections. Impressive! Creating standards, procedures, and tools for diagnosis would have taken months without AI.

These are but three examples of the same pattern. No doubt, AI plus cloud delivery can now automate many routine services, inspections, quality control, and more. I look forward to seeing this applied not only in industry but also in the service industry. Customer service chat bots were only the beginning….


Data is the new oil:

Michael Palmer of the Association of National Advertisers expanded on Clive Humby’s statement. “Data is the new oil. It’s valuable, but if unrefined, it cannot really be used. (Oil) has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc. to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analyzed for it to have value.”*

We’ve come a long way in data as the basis for businesses, and we’re learning about its legal, social, and ethical boundaries along the way.

But there’s no doubt about the trend: Companies who use data as the sole base for their business are coming. And it’s growing into big business for many, not just social media platforms (exploiting user-generated data in return for free services), storage companies (operating the data centers where our clouds host our data), and companies providing software-as-a service (SaaS).

Data in recruiting and talent management:

There is much more data available on job seekers than on LinkedIn alone. Image credit: Eightfold.ai

Recruiting and managing employees is still mostly database-driven. Enter keywords, and databases, like LinkedIn, will list results. Consequently, resumes and LinkedIn profiles today are optimized for the very same keywords. Obviously, this does soon not produce the best results. If both recruiters and job seekers optimize for the same keywords (possibly using the same services), the best bot will be listed at the top, not necessarily the best candidate.

Recruiting and managing employees is still mostly database-driven. Enter keywords, and databases, like LinkedIn, will list results. Consequently, resumes and LinkedIn profiles today are optimized for keywords. However, this does not produce the best results. If both recruiters and job seekers optimize for the same keywords (possibly using the same services), the best bot will be listed at the top, not necessarily the best candidate.

Data can do more today. Eightfold uses AI to cross-reference and compare data from over 1 billion people. In this way hidden traits, or fits with particular company cultures or career paths across several companies and progressive educations become apparent. Eightfold built a business on the sole basis of data that is useful for recruiting and talent management. And investors agree that this has big potential. They financed the company with a Series D of $125m at unicorn valuation.

Data in reputation management:

Quid uses data to generate insights for their customers (and beautiful images, too!). Image credit: Netbasequid.com

Another area where vast amounts of ambiguous data are hard to interpret is reputation management or brand health. And with shitstorms on social media propagating at very high speeds, crisis management and recognizing trends are more complicated and time-critical than ever. Squid built a business providing a suite of “social analytics” to their clients solely based on analyzing data that others generate, such as social media, news tickers, and publications. The data is out there, much of it accessible publicly. All you need is a business idea of how to use data to create a new business. I’m very much looking forward to what creative uses of data will form the basis for the next unicorn companies!


Top of the Month

The sky above Mars is blue!

Perseverance flying thru Mars’ atmosphere to land on Mars on February 19, 2021 (Image credit: NASA)

I was glued to the screen to follow the landing of Perseverance on Mars. It slowed down by deploying a parachute, followed by a “skytrain” lowering the vehicle to the surface of Mars before flying away. What a remarkable, incredible technical achievement! But what totally blew me away was the view of the sky above Mars, briefly visible during the parachute deployment. It’s blue, just like on Earth! I’d never thought about it and expected a red color. Maybe Elon Musk is right, and Mars isn’t that different from Earth, and going there and staying there is within our reach. What do you think? And you can relive the landing minute-by-minute here.

Flop of the month

COVID tracing apps did not have an impact, sadly.

Germany’s coronavirus tracing App. (Image credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images, Bloomberg June 2020)

I was very bullish on the use of apps to trace COVID transmissions (see the article in Digigram of October 2020 for more).

However, we’ve now realized that these apps weren’t adopted widely enough to have an impact, except in countries where they were strictly enforced and policed. One success story came from Taiwan, where visitors are forced to install the app and get a local SIM card before they’re allowed into the country. The app also tracks and reports each user’s location, ensuring that they don’t break quarantine. Such draconian measures work. But they were unacceptable to populations and politicians in most countries. We’ll never know how many deaths could have been avoided by stricter use of tracing apps. It seems that the general public in Western cultures viewed contact tracing apps as too big an invasion of their privacy, and accepted the risk of getting sick and potentially dying instead. Please take note, all who think of introducing identity cards with chips and personal and biometric data on them or cameras with face recognition. There’s a limit to what Western people find acceptable, and that limit is low.


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Meet me here

Let’s meet! Join me for the first-ever online DIGIGRAM. On Wednesday, March 17, at 9 am San Francisco time (12 noon East Coast, 6 pm in Zurich).

Click here to attend, and I’ll send you the link.


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