Thought Starters: decline of retail, deadly algorithms & changing political landscape

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more  interesting (and hopefully well informed) opinions that I’ve read over the last few weeks. This edition looks at the decline in the American retail sector, concerns about an algorithm led world, the development of augmented reality and the changing political landscape in a number of countries among other things:

The bricks and mortar retail sector is not doing well in the US and it looks like a trend that’s likely to continue with growing ecommerce (with Amazon taking a disproportionate share) and a glut of retail space:

The shuttering of US retail stores

Will Knight points to the risks of handing over tasks to algorithms when you don’t understand what’s going on under the hood:

The mysterious mind of this vehicle points to a looming issue with artificial intelligence. The car’s underlying AI technology, known as deep learning, has proved very powerful at solving problems in recent years, and it has been widely deployed for tasks like image captioning, voice recognition, and language translation. There is now hope that the same techniques will be able to diagnose deadly diseases, make million-dollar trading decisions, and do countless other things to transform whole industries.

But this won’t happen—or shouldn’t happen—unless we find ways of making techniques like deep learning more understandable to their creators and accountable to their users. Otherwise it will be hard to predict when failures might occur—and it’s inevitable they will. That’s one reason Nvidia’s car is still experimental.

Benedict Evans looks at the way augmented reality is likely to develop as it moves out of the development lab and into the mainstream:

This touches on a related question – do AR and VR merge? It’s certainly possible, and they are doing related things with related engineering challenges. One challenge of doing both in one device is that VR, to place you into another world, needs to black out everything else, so the glasses need to be sealed around the edges, where AR does not need this. In parallel, the whole challenge of AR is to let the world through while occluding what you don’t want (and it’s probably not great in bright sunlight for a while), where VR wants to start with a black screen.

A lot has been made of the potential for disruption in the automotive industry with the move to electric drivetrains, ridesharing services and self driving technology providing substantial opportunity for new competitors to enter the market. Navigant Research’s analysis on the other hand suggests that the market incumbents may well have a head start in the race towards self driving cars:

Navigant ranking of self driving programmes

One of the car manufacturers’ frenemies is Uber which has been having a rough time lately for its attitudes to diversity and allegations that it has been engaging in intellectual property theft. This is all helping fuel concerns that Uber is overvalued, helped by the fact that it doesn’t face the financial scrutiny of being a publicly traded company.

While the Brexit referendum pointed to a slim majority for a split with the European Union, there is considerable ambiguity as to what this actually means although polls point to few Britons wanting a hard Brexit:

Britain's attitudes to soft and hard Brexit

The election of Donald Trump has renewed attention focused on America’s white working class. Among the symptom of societal distress is the growing opioid epidemic which has particularly impacted white urban and suburban populations in the US:

How Bad Is the Drug Overdose Epidemic?

The French presidential elections are fast approaching, and whilst the sidelining of Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections has given more liberal voices some hope, Marine Le Pen should not be taken lightly as Roger Cohen suggests:

Her path to victory runs roughly like this. She qualifies for the second round with about 24 percent of the vote. Macron is her opponent, with about the same score. The more right-wing Fillon supporters migrate to Le Pen. Supporters of the far-left candidate, Mélenchon, refuse to vote for Macron; they’ve had it with so-called “useful votes” and they believe Macron, for all his talk of being a progressive, will pursue “neoliberal” global capitalism. Some Hamon supporters also refuse to back Macron. The abstention rate soars. Le Pen squeezes past 50 percent and becomes president.

Patrick Collison interviews one of my favourite commentators, Tyler Cowen covering a wide range of issues including the health of economics, pitfalls of globalisation (“monoculture of extreme diversity”), Donald Trump and the importance of Twitter:

If you find yourself in London in the coming weeks, I would definitely recommend a visit to the Photographer’s Gallery. The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize has some great work from Sophie Calle, Dana Lixenberg and Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, but the real treat is Roger Mayne’s photos from Britain in the 1960s and 70s:

Man leaving a factory by Roger Mayne

The featured image at the top of the page is Strook’s contribution to The Crystal Ship Festival in Ostend, Belgium.

Thought Starters: self driving cars, Brexit and the US elections

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more  interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last few weeks. This edition looks at the evolution of self driving cars, the rise and fall of the Gülen movement, the impact of Brexit on the UK economy and the US elections which appear increasingly beyond parody.

A Be Heard Group survey of senior marketers and advertisers points to what some see should be the optimum marketing mix in our current age:
The new marketing mix

As more traditional marketing channels lose some of their lustre (despite the exhortations of the Ad Contrarian), one of the channels gaining ground is influencer marketing. The following figures from The Economist give a guide to what influencers are typically earning across YouTube, Facebook and Instagram:

Average earnings for influenver posts on selected social media platforms

Whilst the US has seen more than its fair share of innovations in virtual reality technology, The Economist points to China as being one of the leaders in its application with real estate and education leading the way:

Virtual reality headset shipments forecast

We’re living in an increasingly visual world with Instagram and Snapchat growing their hold on consumers’ attention. This is reflected in the growing in value of the image sensor market seen in figures compiled by Andreessen Horowitz although one of the interesting conclusions is the declining importance of the camera in a world where smartphones are everywhere:

Cameras in everything, except in cameras

Whilst venture capitalists have seemingly become the cool kids of the financial sector, figures from CB Insights and KPMG International point to VC investments in startups as having declined over the past four quarters:

Venture capital investments into start-ups have declined in the past four quarters.

One area that has seen considerable venture capital investment of late is in technologies around self driving cars. Tesla’s latest demonstration video (albeit in perfect conditions) points to the progress being made despite earlier hiccups. Tesla are apparently looking to charge owners between $8000-$10,000 for the service and it won’t be made available at least initially to owners looking to use it for ridesharing services:

Will Knight looks at Uber’s trial of self driving cars in Pittsburgh, contrasting the experience for passengers with those provided by human drivers and points to the barriers that will need to be overcome before we see more of these services on our streets:

So I catch a ride with a guy named Brian, who drives a beat-up Hyundai Sonata. Brian says he’s seen several automated Ubers around town, but he can’t imagine a ride in them being as good as one with him. Brian then takes a wrong turn and gets completely lost. To be fair, though, he weaves through traffic just as well as a self-driving car. Also, when the map on his phone leads us to a bridge that’s closed for repairs, he simply asks a couple of road workers for directions and then improvises a new route. He’s friendly, too, offering to waive the fare and buy me a beer to make up for the inconvenience. It makes you realize that automated Ubers will offer a very different experience. Fewer wrong turns and overbearing drivers, yes, but also no one to help put your suitcase in the trunk or return a lost iPhone.

China manufacturing sector has often been characterised in the past as a clone shop and Josh Horwitz’s coverage of the copying of the Stikbox Kickstarter campaign suggests that the country hasn’t outgrown this yet.  Keyboardio’s visit to Shenzen in China provides a more sympathetic view of the country pointing to how seemingly any electronic device can be purchased at a knockdown price.

Analysis from the Financial Times points to China as being the source of the greatest share of the world’s merger and acquisition flows:
China dominates M&A flows

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown after the attempted coup had me guessing that this was a false flag operation which Erdoğan was using as an opportunity to strengthen his hold on power. Dexter Filkin’s detailed profile of Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen movement suggests that Erdoğan’s claims weren’t simply hot air, although the impact has been to strengthen his hold on power:

The irony of the attempted coup is that Erdoğan has emerged stronger than ever. The popular uprising that stopped the plot was led in many cases by people who disliked Erdoğan only marginally less than they disliked the prospect of a military regime. But the result has been to set up Erdoğan and his party to rule, with nearly absolute authority, for as long as he wants. “Even before the coup attempt, we had concerns that the government and the President were approaching politics and governance in ways that were designed to lock in a competitive advantage—to insure you would have perpetual one-party rule,” the second Western diplomat said.

Like many Britons, I’ve been left trying to digest the impact that the Brexit referendum will have on our lives. Simon Head provides a valuable look at the financial fallout that will follow a hard Brexit that Theresa May is calling for:

It must now embark on a series of marathon negotiations with its EU ex-partners, certain only in the knowledge that the trading regime that will emerge from them may be far less favorable to business located in Britain than the one that exists now. It is hard to imagine a set of circumstances more likely to convince foreign businesses in Britain that they should act on their warnings to leave the country or reduce their presence there, and instead take up residence within the secure  confines of the Single European Market. The British economy and the British people will suffer the consequences.

Immigration proved one of the defining issues of the Brexit referendum. It’s interesting to compare foreign born population with those regions that chose to vote for leaving the European Union (no easy correlation):

Estimated population of the UK

The American elections are inevitably drawing comparisons with the Brexit referendum with the rise of a populist candidate whose campaigning clearly blurs the line between fact and fiction. Evan Osnos provides a look at what the world is likely to be facing should Donald Trump win the presidential election:

Modern Presidents have occasionally been constrained by isolated acts of disobedience by government officials. To confront terrorism, Trump has said, “you have to take out their families,” work on “closing that Internet up in some ways,” and use tactics that are “frankly unthinkable” and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” General Michael Hayden, a former head of the C.I.A. and of the National Security Agency, predicts that senior officers would refuse to carry out those proposals. “You are required not to follow an unlawful order,” he has said.

One of the key characteristics of US politics over the last 20 years has been growing polarisation between Republican and Democrat supporters.  The media has had more than a hand in this election cycle with research from BuzzFeed pointing to hyperpartisan Facebook pages particularly from the right pushing untrue stories. Sarah Smarsh provides an alternative viewpoint, pointing to traditional media’s lack of sympathy for Trump supporters, compounding their alienation from mainstream politics:

The economic trench between reporter and reported on has never been more hazardous than at this moment of historic wealth disparity, though, when stories focus more often on the stock market than on people who own no stocks. American journalism has been willfully obtuse about the grievances on Main Streets for decades – surely a factor in digging the hole of resentment that Trump’s venom now fills. That the term “populism” has become a pejorative among prominent liberal commentators should give us great pause. A journalism that embodies the plutocracy it’s supposed to critique has failed its watchdog duty and lost the respect of people who call bullshit when they see it.

Research from Raj Chetty, David Cutler and Michael Stepner point to wealth as helping the rich afford more than just the finer things in life. There findings point to the richest 1% of U.S. males living 15 years longer than the poorest 1%:

Life Expectancy versus Household Income

Whilst we’re on the subject of human health, BBC’s The Inquiry podcast looks at the growing mess we’re in with the declining effectiveness of antibiotics – hardly a new story but an important reminder nonetheless. Unfortunately research from the European Medicines Agency points to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in agriculture as continuing in Europe which will further compound the issue.

Another podcast I’d like to plug is Tyler Cowen’s interview with Vox founder Ezra Klein. Both commentators provide valuable coverage of the world we live in, the former through his blog Marginal Revolution and the latter through podcasts The Weeds (with Sarah Kliff, and Matt Yglesias) and the Ezra Klein Show.

The featured image at the top of the page is Silencio by Christian Riffel.

Thought Starters: Andreessen’s forecast, Google Assistant, Brexit and the global wealthy

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at the Marc Andreessen’s forecast for the future of tech, Google’s recent keynote address and launch of Google Assistant, an update on Brexit and a look at how the wealth differ between countries among other matters.

The advertising industry has seen a lot of change over the last 15 years with the growth of online advertising, social media and smartphones all impacting how brands reach consumers. What Eric Chemi’s analysis of DB5’s figures suggests is that these changes haven’t really enabled the marketing industry to take a greater share of the pie with advertising budgets staying constant as a proportion of GDP:

Ad industry's flat-line growth

One more recent window into how the world of marketing is changing can be seen in product discovery. Amazon is now where more than half of online US consumers begin their product searches according to Spencer Soper’s report on Bloomreach research, with the online retail behemoth strengthening its hold on consumers thanks to its low prices, growing delivery network and Amazon Prime offering.

Marc Andreessen in an interview with Timothy B. Lee gives his view on where technology and innovation will be sending us next. This sees him cast his opinion on artificial intelligence, drones, employment and autonomous cars:

To me the problem is clear: The problem is insufficient technological adoption, innovation, and disruption in these high-escalating price sectors of the economy. My thesis is that we’re not in a tech bubble — we’re in a tech bust. Our problem isn’t too much technology or people being too excited about technology. The problem is we don’t have nearly enough technology. These cartel-like legacy industries are way too hard to disrupt.

Google’s I/O 2016 keynote saw the company launch various new offerings including the Pixel smartphone, Daydream virtual reality headset, Chromecast Ultra streaming device, Google Wifi router and Google Home smart home assistant. The most interesting feature from the Pixel smartphone is Google Assistant, offering a real step forward from Google Now and Apple’s Siri:

Ben Thompson’s analysis of the launch of Google Assistant points to it as signalling a real change in Google’s mobile strategy, with its move to limit the service to Pixel rather than all Android handsets:

Google has a business-model problem: the “I’m Feeling Lucky Button” guaranteed that the search in question would not make Google any money. After all, if a user doesn’t have to choose from search results, said user also doesn’t have the opportunity to click an ad, thus choosing the winner of the competition Google created between its advertisers for user attention. Google Assistant has the exact same problem: where do the ads go?

After all, if a user doesn’t have to choose from search results, said user also doesn’t have the opportunity to click an ad, thus choosing the winner of the competition Google created between its advertisers for user attention.

Sony is in the throes of releasing its Playstation VR headset which is expected to be a frontrunner in the race to get virtual reality in consumers’ living room. Brian X. Chen’s review suggests we’re still a long way off from having virtual reality in most of our homes:

Virtual reality is still in its early days, and it’s unclear whether it will ever catch on with people beyond gamers. If you already own a PlayStation, spending a few hundred dollars for the headgear and accessories is a worthwhile purchase to get started on virtual reality.

But for the average consumer, the thrill of virtual-reality gaming with PlayStation VR may be fleeting. Initially, virtual reality will probably mesmerize you because it’s so unlike any gaming experience you have ever had. But the scarce number of good games available today, combined with the fatigue you will experience after 30 minutes of game play, may drive you back to gaming on your smartphone or television screen.

Another area that might not live up to the current hype is self driving cars. We’re seeing Google and Uber trying out live experiments but there’s little sign of these being available to consumers (Tesla’s Autopilot is a much more limited version of self driving) and Tom Simonite suggests we’re not likely to have this situation change anytime soon:

But don’t expect to toss out your driver’s license in 2021. Five years isn’t long enough to create vehicles good enough at driving to roam extensively without human input, say researchers working on autonomous cars. They predict that Ford and others will meet their targets by creating small fleets of vehicles limited to small, controlled areas.

One area where we have seen real change is in consumers’ growing adoption of digital photography, fueled by the now ubiquitous smartphone.  It’s been interesting to watch is how smartphone  software is increasingly giving high end cameras a run for their money in their picture quality as Michael Zhang’s comparison of the iPhone 7 and Leica M9-P attests to:

iPhone 7 vs Leica M9-P: a side-by-side photo comparison

Diane Coyle provides a valuable refresher on how the move into the digital age is changing our conceptions of property ownership:

Conceptions of property seem to be evolving again with the rise of the “sharing economy”. The ease of using digital matching platforms make the consumer’s decision to buy or rent less stark than in the past ; the legal ownership rights are clear but the economic choices and consequences are changing.
The wider point is that technology and the law have between them significant effects on the kinds of market transactions that take place. Some consequences might seem minor. Others concern land grabs for economic assets.

Brexit has been thrust back into the spotlight by British Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement that the country will start formal negotiations for Britain to leave the EU by March 2017. Gideon Rachman criticises May for essentially giving away one of the few bargaining chips that the country has in its negotiations with the European Union:

So why has Mrs May been so reckless? The short answer is politics. If the prime minister had delayed triggering Article 50 any longer she might have faced a revolt from Conservative MPs, who would have feared that she was backsliding on Brexit. By making her announcement just before the Tory party conference, she has also guaranteed herself some favourable headlines and applause in the conference hall. She may have bought herself another couple of years in 10 Downing Street. But she has also significantly increased the chances that Brexit will cause severe damage to the British economy.

Theresa May and British foreign secretary Boris Johnson would be well advised to give an ear to Centre for European Reform director Charles Grant who provides some valuable advice on how we would best negotiate Brexit.

There’s been a lot of talk of protecting manufacturing jobs in both the US and UK but does this really reflect problems of contemporary society?  Binyamin Appelbaum suggests it might be more a case of reflecting the group that shouts the loudest rather than those most worthy of support:

The enduring political focus on factory workers partly reflects the low profile of the new working class. Instead of white men who make stuff, the group is increasingly made up of minority women who serve people. “That transformation really has rendered the working class invisible,” says Tamara Draut, the author of “Sleeping Giant,” a recent book about this demographic transformation and its political consequences.

The old working class still controls the megaphone of the labor movement, in part because unions have struggled to organize service workers. Manufacturing was, logistically speaking, easier to organize. There were lots of workers at each factory, and most knew one another. Service work is more dispersed and done in smaller crews. Workers living in the same city and employed by the same retail chain, for example, would likely know only a handful of their compatriots. Fostering a sense of trust and shared purpose under these conditions is difficult.

Tyler Cowen draws on Jonathan Wai and David Lincoln’s research into the global wealthy to point out differences between countries with some counterintuitive results:

Percentage of rich individuals who primarily inherited their wealth

Our World in Data provides a reassuring forecast of the growing levels of education we can expect in the coming years. This should go someway to addressing the issue of global population growth and increasing standards of living:

Projection of the total world population by level of education

The Economist has collated Nobel laureates’ age at the date of their award and the trend is definitely older (with the exception of the Peace category). Now if only I’d achieved half as much as Malala Yousafzai had by the age of 17:

Age of Nobel laureates at date of award

Amnesty International has released the following map which points to the disproportionate load that some countries are bearing in the hosting of the world’s refugees. What makes this even more concerning is the state of many of these countries’ economies leaving them ill placed to host refugees compared to the countries of Western Europe and North America:

The world's top 10 refugee host countries

The featured image at the top of the page is Stone Quarry by Zest in Villars-Fontaine, France which was published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: Facebook’s M, Privacy, Driverless Cars, the Dating Apocalypse and more

The following is a collection of articles and thought pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

Research from Flurry profiled by Yahoo points to the dominant role that apps have in the mobile ecosystem. The following graph doesn’t tell the entire story given the ability to reach web pages within a mobile app but does show the comparatively marginal role of the mobile browser:

Time_spent_on_Mobile

Facebook has launched its M virtual assistant as part of its Messenger offering and was recently profiled in Wired.  It has been rolled out to only a limited audience at this stage and what’s particularly interesting about the service is its use of humans as the system’s artificial intelligence develops a robust knowledge base:

“In the larger world of AI-driven personal assistants, M may seem like a regression. And as Facebook tests the tool with the public, it’s unclear whether this human-machine partnership can keep pace as the project expands to an ever-larger audience. But in a counterintuitive way, M may actually be a step forward for AI.”

Instagram now offers consumers and brands the opportunity to share photos and videos that are rectangles and not simply the iconic squares that we’ve become so used to.  Advertising Age has a look at the likely impact for brands:

WeAreSocial follow up their profile of China with a profile of the world’s other fast developing behemoth with topline digital, social and mobile statistics for India:

A lot of noise has been made by commentators and critics about the cost in privacy that consumers are paying for the free services provided by Facebook and Google (“If you’re not paying for it; you’re the product”). Andrew McAfee jumps to their defence arguing that consumers are getting a fair deal, particularly given the plethora of consumer information already available to marketers:

“It’s true that all the information about me and my social network that these companies have could be used to help insurers and credit-card companies pick customers and price discriminate among them. But they already do that, and do it within the confines of a lot of regulation and consumer protection. I’m just not sure how much “worse” it would get if Google, Facebook and others started piping them our data.”

Maxwell Wessel looks at how the introduction of driverless cars is likely to restructure the auto industry, with the car forecasted to become less of a personal luxury and more of a utility.

The launch of UberPool brings Uber into closer competition with public transport with users picked up along what are being labelled as Smart Routes.  Given this, it was encouraging to see Nate Silver and Reuben Fischer-Baum argue that Uber and public transport are complementary and will hopefully get more cars off the road in urban centres:

Uber and Public Transport versus the Car

China’s economy seems to have hit the skids recently with Tyler Cowen giving a good overview of some of the key reasons for the downturn.  The BBC put together the following infographic which show why China’s economy isn’t significant just for the Chinese and investors in the country’s economy:

China's central role in world trade

Nancy Jo Sales‘ report on the impact of Tinder on relationships kicked up more than its fair share of criticism. Moira Weigel rightly points out that there’s been a long list of societal and technological changes that have created significant changes in courtship rituals without human society falling apart. Looking at the issue from another angle, Jon Birger’s analysis points to imbalances in education levels among men and women as creating a source of growing tension in relationship patterns.

Europe’s refugee crisis has deservedly dominated news headlines recently and the following infographic from the Washington Post illustrates why the scale of the crisis in Syria is so tragic. Please show your support:

Syria_popIf you’re in London between now and the 20th of September, I’d recommend a visit to the Photographers’ Gallery where the Shirley Baker exhibition Women Children and Loitering Men is well worth a view:

Hulme, May 1965 © Shirley Baker Estate Courtesy of the Shirley Baker Estate

The feature image was produced by Eko and published in his Flickr stream.