People are losing it over AI. From analyst predictions, to industry events, to earnings calls, artificial intelligence and machine learning are all the rage. And dollars are flowing in response: the number of AI start-ups getting funding has spiked 4x from 2012 to 2016 (from 160 deals to 658 deals, according to CB Insights) and a recent Forrester study projects a 300% increase in corporate investments from 2016 to 2017. Yet, we’ve seen this hype before. Especially those of us who were at the front lines of AI back in the early days (or at least the mid-90’s!).
Yes, AI is super-exciting. Yes, machine learning (a sub-set of AI, but sometimes not) offers to revolutionize the way we monitor, and model and pattern match and interpret all the big and small data that is swirling around all of us. But no, it’s not all going to happen overnight. And (especially) no, many businesses and consumers still don’t have a clue about the best ways to select, apply and monetize AI for practical, everyday stuff. The following rules should help in this regard – but mainly are envisioned as a (time-tested) sanity check for surviving the latest edition of the AI hype machine.
Rule #1: Scope Matters. Creating a general-purpose thinking machine is hard. Creating an intelligent agent (or bot) that automates a single or small set of everyday, repetitive, “standard” tasks is a lot more tractable. Just as the key to early AI – and the Knowledge Management movement that followed – was finding narrow but high value applications like streamlining problem resolution in call centers or processing loan applications, the same type of “think global, act local” approach applied to today’s AI is equally important. For the same reason, starting with small-ish data vs. super-large big data sets can make sense when applying analytical techniques to many non-scientific business applications (more on this next).
Rule #2: Machine Learning is Not Magic. And it’s not easy (for most) to get right the first time either. Experimentation with a tool like RStudio is key, and there are many algorithms to choose from (Bayes, decision trees, regressions, and once-again popular neural network models aka “deep learning”). Of course training deep learning models can be both an art and a science. However, the good news is that an excellent recent article by Andrew Beam shows that you don’t need Google-scale data to use deep learning. I saw this in some of my graduate work when I was training neural nets to do simple pattern recognition, and it’s great to see this type of small data approach continuing to stand the test of time!
you don’t need Google-scale data to use deep learning”
Rule #3: Data is King. Getting close to customers, understanding their journey, tailoring their experience, and selecting just the right offer are all outcomes that are enabled by insights powered by big and small data. Generating these insights in a timeframe and cost that make them readily available to front line teams (and consumers themselves) is where advanced analytics and techniques like deep learning need to go. But as mentioned above, what you get out is very much a function of what (data) you put in. Where will your training data come from? How will you prepare it? Who will test the performance? These are questions as important as what tool or algorithm you’ll use.
Rule #4: People Matter. Even as AI systems become more skilled at complex decision-making, and take over some “back of house” functions previously performed by humans, we are a long way from creating virtual human beings, a point that Om Malik made in his excellent piece for The New Yorker last summer. Which is why some of the best, most impactful use cases will continue to augment rather than replace human workers, such as the AI voice analysis and feedback system from Boston-based Cogito that gives real-time guidance to employees as they engage customers on the phone, or the “davis” AI powered virtual assistant for IT ops from APM pioneer Dynatrace.
Rule #5: Consumers Don’t Care About Your Technology. Data nerds want to know what flavor of machine learning you are using. If you are selling to them or other techies, than skip to Rule #6. For everyone else, take note that it’s more important to focus on the “why” than the “how” when selling the value of your AI initiative to internal or external stakeholders. Why is the problem interesting? Why is it hard to solve with traditional (non-AI) approaches? Why is this repeatable/scalable vs. one-off solution? Even more so, what unique value is AI providing to your initiative or app? And how will you show ROI going forward?
Rule #6: Embedding AI Drives Adoption. Back in the day, the old joke among AI researchers was that when something in AI become successful, it wasn’t called AI any more. Today, many successful AI powered apps and services have AI “in them” but the technology is not apparent to the end-user. And that’s the point really – embedding AI drives adoption. Fortunately there are a growing number of tools to add AI or machine learning or other intelligent capabilities. These include open source development frameworks and engines like Apache Lucene (NLP) and Mahout (ML), Eclipse BIRT (Developed by Actuate – now part of OpenText) for embedded analytics and visualization, and RapidMiner for machine learning; embedded analytics specialists like Izenda and Sisense; developer platforms like IBM Watson APIs (conversation, speech, vision) and Microsoft Cognitive Services (decision rules, search, vision); and even custom hardware like Nvidia’s Jetson TX2 card.
Rule #7: Focus on Improving Everyday Work. Much of my research and writing over the past few years has focused on turning small and big data insights into everyday value. For marketers there are established use cases for data-driven marketing (see some of them in the piece I did for DMN a few years back), and there’s also a helpful framework for considering which marketing processes are mostly likely to be disrupted by AI from the folks at TopRight Partners. And for others looking at the bigger picture, there’s a very cool study (and poster!) on the overall potential of automation in the workplace – “Where machines could replace humans” – from McKinsey that is worth checking out.
Back in the summer I explored the concept of “wise” devices being proposed by Fitbit designer Gadi Amit and introduced the idea that small data will be the OS for these mobile and wearable devices.
Since then, my teams at Actuate have been exploring these ideas and accelerating our work around applying information design best practices for a new generation of rich mobile apps and embedded analytics. The goal: expand the boundaries and our understanding of what it means to assemble and display intelligence in context. We’ve also been teaming with our engineering group to look at new ways to demonstrate the rich APIs provided by the BIRT iHub to better access real-time device data, visualize it, and embed these packaged insights on “non-traditional” devices like smartwatches, tablets or even large-format displays.
Some initial results – including a very cool IoT-telematics demo that leverages the BIRT technology stack and open data standards to show how to connect your car to your smartwatch – were first premiered by Actuate’s Kris Clark at EclipseCon Europe. And more recently this demo was updated and featured at our ongoing Data Driven Summit events, along with the IoS tablet app shown above which demonstrates rich, fluid visualizations in a mobile BI scenario.
These concepts and Actuate’s overall strategy for the Embedded Analytics market were also part of a media and analyst roundtable during our London event. And judging by the press coverage (see here, here and here), “Wearable BI” is a pretty compelling idea!
Observations from the Field
The great thing about getting into the field and sharing perspectives with practitioners and project owners around the globe (I’ve been in 6 cities on 3 continents over the past 3 weeks, speaking to and sharing with hundreds of attendees as part of our Summit program) is that we have fresh insight into how organizations are looking at visualizing their data, and where they are focusing in 2015 and beyond. As expected, mobile devices and data are a big driver, but so is the idea of operationalizing transactional big data by embedding analytics in more places, and making these insights more consumable by more users by raising the bar in terms of information design.
In fact my colleague Mark Gamble’s session on Visualization and UX Best Practices – featuring the best tips from Edward Tufte and Stephen Few and our own team – has been consistently one of the most popular and highest rated sessions during our recent tour.
Other notes, takeaways, and resources:
- The Small data philosophy is even more relevant today than when I started writing about it 2 years ago in Forbes. More analysts and companies are focusing on the “last mile of Big Data” as the place where value is created, especially when tackling everyday marketing challenges and designing data-driven apps for mobile and IoT. Since my last post some good articles to check out on the topic include these new pieces in Fortune and Forbes , my latest op-ed in CMSWire, and this cool infographic from Constant Contact.
- For data-driven mobile apps, a native/hybrid approach works best. Sure, native is great for games, but if you are creating real business apps, there are benefits of having some native code local to the device, and some non-platform-specific components resident on a back-end server to provide maximum flexibility and performance (and re-use!) for serving up rich visualizations that scale up to millions of users, and scale down to match individual preferences and limitations of small displays. For more detail, I’ve posted the slides from our Mobile and IoT session at Data Driven Summit on my Slideshare.
- Many organizations are looking to bring the power of big data to the masses. In fact this is arguably one of the top priorities for 2015. This means taking a fresh look at ways to turn data into information, and information into embedded intelligence, one of the themes Actuate’s CEO touched on at our Summits. It also means envisioning new use cases and new UXs for mobile (like our smartwatch app) – something BI guru Howard Dresner has proposed, and serving up alerts and contextual visuals that are foundational to the next generation of wearable BI and intelligent apps.
So, what’s on your list of project for 2015? I’d love to connect and hear about your plans.
Also, if you are in NYC on December 3 and want to see our IoT demo live and hear from customers, BIRT experts, and industry gurus about the latest thinking around data driven apps, there are still a limited number of seats for Data Driven Summit – New York. You can get more info and sign up (it’s free) here.
In a thought provoking interview with CNET published this past week, Fitbit designer Gadi Amit explores the use of wearables in everyday applications – and introduces the notion of “wise” devices that provide just the right information, when and where we need it.
Beyond the fact that Amit’s firm is designing wearables for unique markets like babies (well I guess really for their parents) and pets (!), what struck me in this piece was Amit’s perspective – certainly shaped by his role as president and lead designer at design firm NewDealDesign – on the state of wearables, their future, and our relationship with them. Specifically, in response to a question about how wearables will be integrated into our daily lives, he states:
The interesting thing is when I say that, people immediately jump to the conclusion that we will be cyborgs. My goal with designing this is that we won’t be cyborgs. We actually will become more human and more free from the technology. What we have now in the design business is two camps: there is the camp that wants to create a lot of data and wants to analyse a lot of data; and there is the other camp which I belong to that tries to create devices that are not smart, they are actually wise. They are more than smart, they are wise enough to understand you, to filter and allow you to go on with your life with all their data processing in the background giving you hints of what is essential when it is essential.
Having data processing in the background and focusing on what information is essential is of course very much in line with the small data “aesthetic” we’ve been promoting here and in a number of venues over the past 2 years, so it’s cool to hear validation from another corner. As a former AI/machine learning guy, I also like the idea of “wise” devices that understand context and personal preferences, and can make a case that small data will in fact be the new “OS” for these devices (more in a future post).
But even more so, if we think of the cyborg comment as a challenge to all of us, I think we need to consider the element of “humanness” as we create new apps and digital experiences. And perhaps provide better opportunities and incentives to untether/unplug (partially?) from our digital devices, even as consumers clamor for faster, more personal, more portable, and ultimately more satisfying data-enriched experiences.
Designing Data-driven Apps
Speaking of the new data consumer, I’ve been spending more time with developers and those thinking about the future of customer facing apps, and recently created a talk on design principles that builds on some of the work you’ve read about on this very blog. As always I believe that data-driven design is an art and a science, so it’s been fun to brush up on the science/tech part for sure.
Of course our first job is still to think about the end-consumer, and how we can inform, connect, and motivate them to get involved or take action. As an aside, if you’ve paid attention to how I’ve presented this last point, I’ve always used Nike Fuelband as my example, so with news that Nike is getting out of the fitness hardware business (good analysis in this Gigaom piece), it’s been interesting to see Fitbit and even Samsung step up their efforts ahead of the likely fall iWatch debut.
On the business side, beyond understanding the value of data along the customer journey and focusing on “last mile” functionality, having a scalable foundation that can potentially support millions of users and large data sets from many sources (before it is transformed into useful small data) is essential as we look to bring powerful, yet human-scale, smart (wise) apps to the masses. So is a community to drive innovation – like the 3.5 million BIRT developers, or 600K+ Drupal users and coders.
Many of these ideas (and some examples) were covered in the talk I did with SD Times recently. There’s a link to the replay and a summary by my colleague Fred Sandsmark on the Actuate blog – which you can read here.
I also presented a longer version focused on bringing the power of advanced analytics to “everyday tasks” at the CAMP IT big data event this past week, (a well-produced event by the way) and plan to post those slides to my slideshare shortly.
Finally, I will be moderating a very cool expert panel on “building the next big app” at a special event Actuate is hosting in San Jose on the evening of July 10. Scheduled to join me on stage will be Eclipse Foundation Executive Director Mike Milinkovich, plus industry watcher and enterprise apps futurist Esteban Kolsky, along with 1-2 other special guests. We’ll explore how consumer experiences will (and are) be shaped by new devices and data, open source driven innovation, and next-generation design tools and practices.
Be sure to let me know if you’ll be in the area and want to join us, since I have a limited number of VIP passes to share.