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.