TED-IBM Into The Land Of What May Be

Once in a while, it’s good to get away from current-day realities and take a peek at the future. At RSR, the current-day realities we deal with are the same ones retailers face, albeit through the lens of the data that we gather about retailer challenges and opportunities. A couple of weeks ago partner Steve Rowen and I were deep into the process of finalizing our latest benchmark study (Retail Supply Chain Execution: New Requirements To Meet New Demand): this is one of the BIG challenges in the retail industry today. But I was able to get away for a day to San Francisco to attend TED@IBM, to hear presentations by innovators on a whole array of subjects. It was a quick trip to the “Land of What May Be”.

If you’re familiar with TED (“Technology, Entertainment, and Design”) talks, then you know the format – each speaker has about 15 minutes to present his or her topic, which is usually related to science, culture, or technology (and often some combination of all of those things). TED talks are streamed live, and after-the-fact are widely distributed via YouTube. Over the 30 years since the concept’s inception, TED talks have become a great informational source for anyone curious about innovations before they emerge as commercial products.

The theme of the day in San Francisco (hosted by IBM) was “Necessity & Innovation”. The brochure for the event summarized: “Necessity is the mother invention – or so we have been led to believe. We cannot help but suspect that our needs to create and to shape the world around us run much deeper than simple pragmatism. The deeply human need to produce something extraordinary from nothing remains essential to every great endeavor.”

Ideas Are Like Sparks

IBM’s General Manager of Global Commerce Deepak Advani kicked off the agenda by simply stating that “ideas are like sparks” — and so the audience was treated to a day full of ideas intended to spark our imaginations.

The first presenter was Josh Luber, CEO and Founder of Campless, which he described as a “sneakerhead data” company. I had no idea that there’s a secondary market for designer sneakers such as the Jordan 4 Retro Doernbecher — as a matter of fact, I didn’t know much (or anything) about designer sneakers at all. But it turns out that there’s a huge market for such things — it’s a $6 billion global business! Luber and his company have created what he called a “democratized stock market of things” with sneakers as the investment opportunity. This market is the result of Nike having created a “false construct by controlling the supply and distribution” of highly desirable models.

Luber was followed by Dr. Jamie Garcia, who started off her talk by proclaiming, “I love plastics!” That was greeted by some nervous laughter in the audience, who probably (like me) were thinking something along the lines of, “aren’t plastics BAD? Aren’t they choking our oceans and lakes?” Dr. Garcia, who designs polymers using sustainable methods at IBM’s Almaden California Research Center, stated that “very few plastics are recycled at scale” and that as a result, 99.98% of plastics are pure waste. But rather than think of that as a bad thing, Garcia called it “a huge business opportunity”, and then went on to describe her work to develop “new class of polymers that are resistant to cracking, stronger than bone, can reform to its original shape, and are completely recyclable.” Her question to the audience was, “What if you could recycle plastic an infinite number of times?”

Garcia was followed by another IBMer, Eric Mibuari, who described his work to democratize financial instruments. He rhetorically asked, “What if all you had was cash?”, explaining that millions of people in Africa and other developing countries have no access to credit. “Access to credit,” he explained, “fuels growth.” He used the example of a Kenyan roadside stand run by Mama Adi that produces plenty of cashflow but has no credit rating. Mibuari explained how Mama Adi knows how much cash she needs to buy inventory for the next sales cycle and has a remarkable and time-proven adeptness at forecasting demand. By transacting using realtime access via a smart mobile device to cloud-based service, the credit worthiness of her business could be assessed based on cashflow, and in turn has given Mama Adi access to credit, enabling her to grow her business.

From sneakers, plastics, and financial instruments, the audience was then immersed for 15 minutes into the world of very high tech by Jerry Chou, who described the next generation of computing — quantum computing. Jerry described how “simulating a coffee molecule is beyond the scope of any conventional computer available today.” I used to consider myself a closet geek, but I was lost from the moment that Chou described a qubit (a quit — quantum bit – is a unit of quantum information), as “different than a bit, which is either a “’0’ or a ‘1’ – a qubit has a ‘0’, a ‘1’, and a ‘0 +/- 1’”. I’m glad that Jerry understands this stuff, because I sure don’t. But his explanation for people like me is that a revolution of computer power is just around the corner.

The Humorous Computer, And Other Wonders

By now, you may have seen IBM’s Watson commercials, each with a scene portraying an interaction between the cognitive computer and a human. Recently, someone described Watson to me as (Apple’s) SIRI for enterprises. Watching the commercials, that doesn’t seem far off the mark. At the TED event, IBM’s Vinith Misra said that one thing that cognitive computers aren’t good at is humor. “Humor is the WD40 of human interaction”, said Vinith. And although some computer companies have tried to humanize computer-based cognitive capabilities (Vinith gave the example of Apple’s SIRI, asking it, “Siri, what color are your eyes?”, to which Siri replied, “I don’t have eyes. But I if did they’d be rolling.” I tried this later on my Apple iPhone 6, and sure enough….). The IBM’er then went on to explain how the Watson team is working on computational humor to breathe personality into cognitive machines. I can’t wait for the Jimmy Fallon interview.

The most moving presentation of the day was given by Chieko Asakawa, an IBM Fellow who has been working on technology accessibility for the blind for the past 30 years. Chieko explained how she lost her sight at age 14 in a swimming accident, and later decided to devote her work to creating accessibility options for the visually impaired. Declaring that “accessibility ignites innovation”, she described her work on Braille and voice browsers.“But I was still not satisfied”, she said, and then went on to show how she is working with technology to enable the blind to “see the real world”. Chieko showed a video where, with the help of an iPhone, a headset, and (presumably) a cognitive computer in the Cloud, she was able to walk through a corridor and down a pathway without assistance. At one point in the video, the computer said, “Mark is walking towards you — he looks happy” (a little video insert showed how a facial recognition algorithm recognized Mark and his facial expressions). In the video, Chieko stopped Mark, said hello and asked, “why are you happy?” Mark then went on to describe the events of his day, finishing with the question, “how did you know I was happy?” (to which Chieko merely smiled).

There were several other talks, about how to market to Millennials, how we form habits, the difference between evolutionary and revolutionary innovation, organic alert systems (detecting food safety by decoding food micro-biomes), “zero knowledge proof of identity” systems (preserving authentication with cryptographic credentials as a deterrence to fraud), managing water scarcity with digital aquifer banks, and even better weather forecasting.

The Underlying Theme

The unifying theme of virtually all of these talks was the power of new information, delivered in real-time and in a highly actionable form. Of course, that makes the discussions relevant to the Retail industry, which as a whole is struggling with the need to respond much more quickly to changes in demand than ever before. While it may be hard to envision the retail roadmap from being merely reactive, to quick response, and finally to prediction, it worth some time to see how other industries are advancing by using new information in new ways to change the world.

So go to YouTube and search on “TED@IBM” — there are about 81,700 videos — and some of the innovations highlighted might light a spark in your business.