These are the technologies that could define customer experience in the second half of the next decade
If we do not watch out, this could turn very dark, but luckily we are seeing signs of companies that are integrating ethics into their culture and processes. But if we do it right, the possibilities for humans to focus on their hopes and dreams, and on the future of the planet will be endless, as they will be freed of the burden of having to manage their basic needs.
The Internet all around us: the rise of the Spatial Web
In the coming years, the most impactful and paradigm shifting technological invention of the last 30 years – the internet – will disappear. It will be everywhere, of course, but it will also be mostly invisible. We’ve seen signs of this, for instance, in shops like Amazon Go where tech is everywhere and yet at the same time (almost) nowhere to be seen. Screens will become scarce and what follows from this ubiquitous “primordial soup” (as my friend Mickey McManus from Autodesk calls it) of technologies – cameras, sensors and AI – will completely change how we behave, and how we buy.
This Internet of Everywhere – or the Spatial Web as some like to call it – will grow into something that is very close to natural, something almost organic. It will be about a convergence of technologies, surfing on the waves of high-bandwidth 5G connectivity: the hardware of the trillions of sensors and cameras that will feel and see us, the software of artificial intelligence that will make sense of what the former measure and interfaces like voice and augmented reality. Everything around us will become, receive and give information.
The Internet in us: the rise of Brain Computer Interfaces
Developing simultaneously with the spatial web (though for the moment not as advanced) is an evolution that may be even more exciting: that of the BCIs or Brain Computer Interfaces, systems that connect the human brain to external technology. If the trend above was about the ‘Internet all around is’, this one is about information and the ‘Internet in us’.
You only have to know the names of some of the companies dabbling in this area – both the invasive (inside the brain) and the non-invasive (as wearables) version – to realize how big this will become. Facebook has been working on its own brain-computer interface for a number of years now. Their non-invasive wearable device is meant to one day allow users to type by simply imagining themselves talking. And let’s not forget Elon Musk’s company Neuralink which is developing a chip connected to wires which fan out into the human brain, capable of both recording brain activity and stimulating it. In a first phase, it will be used for people with neural conditions and disorders, but it could enable human “symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” Even DARPA has been funding programs that leverage machine learning and other AI technologies to adapt BCI tech for future military purposes for two decades. And there’s this whole world of fast growing startups too, like Emotiv, Kernel, MindMaze, Neurable and many, many more. The race for the control over our brain is on. And should this turn out to be a category king type of end game, you’ll understand why they are fighting so hard.
Now, this is the part where it really becomes exciting. If you add this organic web of sensing, thinking and talking technologies with the literal hook-up to our brain via the BCI, the result will be a completely transparent and information-rich society and market. We will become open books for our environment and vice versa: they will not just know what we are thinking, but biometrical and contextual data will also communicate if we are feeling excited, angry, hungry or sick. And the context around us, could adapt itself to all of this information, and readjust our health or even mood. To give a simple example: if we are feeling extremely stressed, our living room could play soothing music, our sofa could give off a nice and cozy warmth, maybe external communications could be blocked for a while and our kitchen robot could bring us a nice herbal tea. Just think of all the possibilities. Marketing would become something very basic and primal, almost instinctual.
The way I see it, this could really flip into one of two extremes when it comes to marketing and customer experience:
- Hypercommercialization: A dystopian temptation island where marketers could really take advantage of everything they know about us – which will be a lot – to make us “buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like” (yes, that’s a quote from Fight Club).
- Hypersimplification: Or it could flip all the way around into this very basic, almost socialist type of society where needs will dominate over commercially triggered wants. One of the things that really stuck with me from my conversation with Tien Tzuo, CEO of Zuora, was that he believes that we will be released from the burden of owning things and will only be interested in outcomes. He was talking about the subscription economy (as in: not the CD but the music, not the car but transportation, not the tractor but moving dirt), but just think of what this change would mean in a world where everything is smart and connected, including our brain. Could it be that we will then only receive (via automated buying and subscriptions) what we need?
Only time will tell, of course. But being a positive guy, and knowing that systems always readjust themselves, I don’t think that we’ll end up in the dystopian temptation island (at least not for long).
No more trade-off between convenience & privacy
Of course, if we want to avoid all of the above taking a really dark turn, the algorithms ruling our lives will also have to become open and transparent about how our data is used and stored. If misuse of data is already a problem now – Cambridge Analytica anyone? – just think of what it could mean when every last one of our moves and thoughts is monitored and mined. I talked about the rise of a ‘Chief Ethics Officer’ in one of my former pieces, but we really need a solid system to keep this connected system from falling apart, one where the entire chain is involved: from companies to governments to the consumer. It would be grossly unfair if everything is open and transparent from the consumer side, but closed from the brand and company side. It’s an understatement to say that we are not ready for a world in which BCIs are a reality. Privacy-wise, I mean.
Luckily, we are seeing movement in this area. The consumer is tired of having to make a trade-off between convenience and privacy and many companies are undertaking steps in their direction. The Google Home Assistant, for instance, now allows consumers (ironically) to delete data with a simple voice command. Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs, which is for instance developing this huge smart city project in Toronto, will help establish a government-sanctioned data trust, governed by transparent data-use guidelines. And it will create new methods of protecting data collected in public areas, where residents and visitors aren’t actively consenting to its collection. Apple, too, is continuously fighting to make privacy part of its brand. And at Facebook’s annual developer conference beginning of this year, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg primarily focused on the company’s shift to privacy. We’re certainly not there yet, but it’s good to see the efforts of companies in that direction.