The brave new retail


Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning lead retailers to new possibilities of interaction and knowledge of their customers.

“The computer is the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds” (Steve Jobs)

In the early 90s, when Apple’s co-founder declared the computer is like a bicycle for our minds, he was talking about how bicycles had made human movements more efficient than any other species on Earth. To Jobs, the computer had the capacity to do the same for the human brain. In the last decade we’ve seen huge progress in this field, but the advances we are now seeing today in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (the ability of machines to think and learn with their own experiences), will accelerate this growth and understanding at a faster rate than ever before.

Machine Learning and AI has grown phenomenally over the last few years. It’s prevalent across all aspects of our lives: from Voice recognition (Siri, Google Now, Cortana), Alexa, Amazon Echo, Auto correct functions when you text, Google Search, iTunes For You, driverless cars, Facebook suggesting people you know or facial recognition in photos to chat bots who have received some $4bn in funding over the last 3 years. According to a recent VentureBeat article, 34 AI start-ups were acquired in the first quarter of this year alone, more than twice the activity of a year ago.  The pace of change is being felt across a number of different industries. Who would have thought that 5 years ago we’d be happy to talk to a chat bot from our bank to deal with a number of different financial queries?

Machine Learning techniques have been around for three or four decades but it is only with the dual advances of fast parallel computing and massive data sets that machine learning has now been proven to be useful.  Machine Learning is a part of our lives and will continue to grow and now is the time to ensure the world of retailing also benefits.

In the last few years, big strides have been made towards the development of agile processes to deal with a retail landscape that has become more complex but, at the end of the day, still continues to be all about delivering the right product at the right time to the right customer. As complexity grows, true understanding of the customer is harder to achieve but now more important than ever before. AI and Machine Learning allow us to do much more with our finite resources. It is impossible for human beings to deal with all the information generated at each given moment in the world, and computers are more prepared than us to cope with the challenge.

In the area of business analytics, several workplace surveys found we spend between 20 to 30 percent of our day looking for information. Even small reductions in the amount of time and effort spent digging around clunky enterprise software would yield significant dividends.

The future of enterprise software won’t be about complicated dashboards and mind-numbing amounts of big data; it will be about well-designed interfaces that make work a pleasure. Machine Learning will be at the forefront of liberating the minds of employees to focus on the insight and decisions that matter.

Instead of having to sift through the drop-down menus, tables, functions, and buttons found in today’s software, machine learning can help to surface the real information you need. Dashboards today pump out vast amount of data and expect the user to do the rest. Tomorrow we will surface insight first, the real answer to why something is happening.

Most enterprise software today often feels like a friend that doesn’t listen. We spend hours and hours a day engaging with and trying to find the right answer to questions. Tomorrow’s interfaces will learn. They will understand how you interact and the science that sits behind the interface like Reinforcement Learning never stops learning – in fact it never goes to sleep. We can also serve up suggested actions and give meaning to these actions taking into account all available data and important context.

Online retailers in particular are already leveraging the power of Machine Learning and AI ahead of more traditional retailers. The Amazon experience is powered by its ability to use these techniques to create a tailored and personalised experience for every one of its customers.

Today, Google, Amazon and Facebook are brilliant examples of where AI and Machine Learning have been successfully integrated and deployed to enhance the customer experience. In the next few years the entire retail sector will follow this path. To do it, companies need to bring in new talent, embrace the pace of change and look for partners who can help them integrate these new techniques into their eco-systems.

Machine Learning is already prevalent in our lives and the pace of change has never been greater. We have in front us of a huge opportunity to truly unleash the power of the computer to transform how we retail. This ultimately isn’t about the technology, it’s about us and how we face into the opportunities it creates. Machine Learning will impact many of the processes and practices that drive our businesses today but we have to enable this to happen.

This really is a revolution everyone in retail needs to embrace.


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