A.I. Comes of Age

How artificial intelligence will revolutionize customer engagement.

Siri, what’s the weather like in New York this week?

Alexa, play playlist, jazz classics, in the living room.

Just a few years ago, you would have wondered what on earth I was talking about with these two statements. However, now you’re likely very familiar with this type of conversation.

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We are in an age not of big data but gigantic, enormous data.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has in truth been with us for some time – longer than you might think.

In 1950, Alan Turing published a landmark paper entitled, Computer Machinery and Intelligence, in which he discussed how to build intelligent machines and how to measure their work.

However, a lack of both funds and computing power thwarted any real progress. This all changed in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1997, much was publicized following reigning world chess champion and grand master Gary Kasparov’s defeat at the hands of IBM’s Deep Blue, a chess-playing computer program.

And then, in 2017, Google’s Alpha Go took on and beat Chinese Go champion Kie Je. When you consider that there are more possible positions in Go than there are atoms in the universe, this was quite an achievement for AI.

Turing, age 16. [PhotoColor/CC BY-SA 4.0]

Today, AI is pervasive in almost every sector from banking to entertainment to automotive to retail. We are in an age not of big data but gigantic, enormous data where the only thing able to process and make sense of all of it is AI.

In its report, Data Age 2025, IDC predicted that by 2025 the total amount of data in the world will be 163 zettabytes. To put this into perspective, according to Cisco, it would take 152 million years for a human to view just 1 zettabyte of data in high resolution video.

What to do with all this data

Think of that last item you purchased online for a moment.

Apart from it being delivered, what happened next? My guess is that you were inundated with pop-up ads, tempting you to purchase that very same item you’ve already bought.

Frustrating isn’t it?

After all, why on earth would you want to purchase another set of garden furniture? It’s the sort of so-called personalization I refer to as ambulance chasing.

It’s retrospective, after the fact, irrelevant and frankly, downright irritating.

Now imagine a world where, instead of being reactive, the personalized experience you receive is not only on a one-to-one basis but is actually proactive.

Sounds good doesn’t it?

Imagine a world where, based on every single interaction you have ever had, based on every social media interaction, every image, every video that you’ve ever uploaded, a retail brand is not only able to map your preferences so accurately that it is able to predict your needs and wants almost before you consciously realize it yourself.

Tapping into foresight 

One of the key findings from the 7th annual UPS Pulse of the Shopper survey reveals:

“New technologies, including robots and chatbots, are ways retailers can enhance the customer experience. Online shoppers are indicating they want technology that enables rewarding, personalized experiences both online and in store.”

So, as consumers, we should welcome this development.

Although AI has been around for many years, along with machine learning, it’s still a largely misunderstood technology in terms of what it can achieve.

According to a McKinsey report published in April 2018, AI has the potential to deliver the biggest impact on revenue in the retail sector.

Global Institute analysis [Source: McKinsey]

According to McKinsey:

“In the future, we could see even more enhancements, including AI systems that identify customers with high purchase potential by looking at various characteristics – facial expression (as a signifier of mood), clothing and number of companions. They could then alert associates about the location of these shoppers within the store”

The time to act

So what does all this mean? In a nutshell, the time to act is now.

Rather than conjuring up an image of a dystopian state, we must embrace the potential of AI to augment our capability as human beings.

Every retail brand wants to know their customer and engage with them in the most appropriate manner. That means with relevance, contextually and thereby avoiding the twin fears of intrusiveness and creepiness.

Retail has largely been unchanged for the past century. AI provides the ability for the sector to broaden its reach, become a larger part of our lives and ultimately redefine its role in society.

The time is now – there’s never been a better time to be in retail.

Andrew Busby is Founder and CEO of Retail Reflections and an IBM Futurist.

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