The Force is Around you

rebeccaWe are in the second inning of a nine-inning game.  Big software came first.  We are about to go into hyper-drive with Machine Learning, AI (Artificial Intelligence), and Big Data.  Software is becoming self-learning.  The coalescence and maturation of these technologies and application to diverse fields – education, manufacturing, shopping, agriculture, real estate, social media, music, and health care – are changing the economies and competiveness of industries while posing opportunities to significantly impact our lives and those of future generations.

At Toys “R” Us, David Brandon, Chief Executive, asked engineers to design an algorithm to better predict when goods will run low.   He is filling shelves with more products in contrast to the lean mind-set of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and others.  Mr. Brandon believes Toys “R” Us must have enough items to sell in order to maintain customer loyalty and retention.

Ticket prices at the Indianapolis Zoo, Swiss Valley ski area, and a 6-mile stretch of highway of I-820 near Dallas are charging dynamic prices.  The price you pay depends on time, day, advance sales, historic prices, current traffic, and expected demand.   With dynamic pricing in place, the Zoo’s admission revenue increased 12% last year.  Backed by vast amounts of data and powerful software, more businesses are varying prices by the day, the hour, or even the minute.   This will impact supply and demand as well as profitability.  Kohl’s Corp. uses electronic price tags in 1,200 stores to change prices for busy versus slow times.   More than 250 ski resorts in North America adjust the price of advance-sale tickets daily, based on tickets already sold.  As more transactions move online, businesses amass more data on consumers’ purchase habits and competitors’ prices.   Companies use that data, along with other variables, to continually adjust prices.

We’ve spent billions building “learning algorithms” that allow machines to emulate an ever expanding array of human skills, but only a fraction of that on helping humans outlearn the automation supplanting us.  We are figuring out how to use technology to make humans more occupationally successful – to raise the quality work and/or measured productivity.   But what we actually need is a revolution in educational technology, one designed to leverage machines, not merely to replace humans.  We need to invest just as much money and engineering hours in human intelligence as we have in machine intelligence.

Schools all across America are adopting “blended learning,” in which traditional instruction is mixed with lessons delivered on PC’s and tablets.   The vision of many entrepreneurs in educational technology is to take those systems to a whole new level.   Instead of all students receiving the same textbook, Knewton, a software company, uses adaptive learning to decide exactly which lessons and problems to deliver to which students.   “In the future, everybody is going to have materials – textbooks, games, whatever – in a materials portfolio that updates in real time, that generates in real time, based on what you know and how you learn best,” says Jose Ferreira, its chief executive.   Some schools are already breaking students’ days into a self-directed series of activities, including private time to work through a personalized “playlist” of instructional tasks on a computer.   The intention is not to replace education with “robot tutors.”   Rather, the idea is that the basics can be handled by software, providing students and teachers with time to engage in group projects, peer instruction, and individual mentoring.   The most important parts of education, building of character skills, social and emotional learning, and the ability to apply that learning to the real world, requires person-to-person interaction.  The question is not whether our schools will leverage the very same technologies that are replacing humans in the workplace, but whether we can afford for them not to.

Higher education is innovating with offering online college level and advanced degree programs.  Georgia Institute of Technology turned heads in 2013 when it announced plans to provide an inexpensive, online version of its master’s degree in computer science to what top administrators predicted would be a “massive” audience.  The program graduated its first class of students on Friday, December 11 – all 20 of them.  Georgia Tech, with $3.5 million in backing from AT&T Inc., was on the forefront of an effort to harness the technology of massive, open, online courses, known as MOOCs, offering a high-quality education at a fraction of the cost of a traditional degree.  Georgia Tech and a few other schools—including Arizona State University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—are trying to incorporate the technology of MOOCs into their credit-bearing academic programs.  These present the opportunity to attain college level or advanced degrees for those who would not have otherwise been able, due to cost factors or inability to take time off from jobs.  The low price point for the online master’s degree at Georgia Tech, just under $7,000 compared with more than $38,000 for the bricks-and-mortar version, poses a huge draw.   Georgia Tech’s online computer science program had 2,789 students this semester compared to 312 in the campus-based version.

In the U.S. economy, consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of economic output.  As such, changes in consumer related industries driven by application of new technologies are molding our future.   These technologies are no longer just on the drawing board.   With current implementations, we can easily envision the future.   Our food products have chips/ bar codes so our smart refrigerators and pantries know what is in them.   As we consume the products, shopping lists are generated and lists of expired items to decide whether to replace or just discard.   Frequency of use and ordering is calculated so our next orders can be anticipated based on predictions as to when we will run low.   When we like and use items, the database is scanned using tools to find the best prices for the item (Shop Buddy, anyone?) or other suggestions based on preferences.  It could go as far as your grocery/supply order being automatically uploaded to your favorite retailer and delivered based upon your anticipated schedule.

Look around and you will see evidence of the software revolution EVERYWHERE.

If you seek additional information, please feel free to comment here or ask the person who directed you to this blog post how to position yourself to take advantage of these emerging opportunities.


Rebecca Carfi

The Financial Sage

Join Rebecca Carfi, The Financial Sage as she shares relevant financial information and wisdom garnered from her deep and broad career in Financial Services and Management.

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