Analytics & Data Business Internet of Things

It Takes More Than a Machine to Know You: Assistance In An Instrumented World

An Amazon Echo device (Courtesy of Shutterstock)

The amazing Amazon Echo. (Photo courtesy Shutterstock)

A man stands in front of the fridge. A sudden craving for ice cream is threatening to undo his fitness plan. His proximity invokes a data display that itemizes the contents of the fridge and shows how long each has been in there. He is prompted to renew his orders for April. The voice affirms the order and suggests a snack of hummus and carrots. “This brings you to 50% of your recommended protein requirement and 70% of your daily fiber needs,” the voice says when he removes the items from the refrigerator. “Don’t forget water. It’s 75 degrees outside. If you leave after your call, you can walk to the tennis court for your 2 p.m. session.”

It sounds futuristic, and it is. With Amazon’s Echo/Alexa virtual assistant combination, this kind of future is close. Every day, Alexa is getting smarter.  But the advice you get from that future refrigerator could very well be the advice of a real human.

There’s still a significant gap between today’s smart virtual assistants and the futuristic robot-butlers of fiction—the ones that anticipate our every need. Today, the closest human analogs are the personal wealth manager, stylist, and concierge medical specialist—individuals whose success is measured by their ability to proactively address the customer’s needs by pulling from a variety of sources. Getting to know a customer well enough to be very valuable is time-consuming for humans, and as a result these services tend to be available mostly to the wealthy. Yet, for the foreseeable future, it will still take a human touch to understand the emotional context of aspirations and how individuals assess value—not to mention to perform creative problem-solving.

Still, in the context of IoT, on-demand everything, and ubiquitous analytics, technology and humans are coming closer to jointly performing what I call the “trusted advisor” role, enabling a human to sort through options to recommend the greatest value for you given your context and needs. He or she would do so by knowing you better than anyone else, and being fully aligned with your best interests, rather than those of a product or service provider. Imagine the consultative, problem-solving power of an intuitive advisor armed with not just a client’s self-reported needs, wants, and preferences but with data about activities, purchases, movement patterns, and interactions.

This role becomes ever more valuable as the supply of products and services fragments and product life cycles compress, further increasing demands on our time and attention. The human plays an important role, applying psychology, persuasiveness and creativity to help users meet needs and also overcome barriers to their aspirations. Ideally, the “machine” could free humans to focus on the real value-added work: building relationships, understanding emotional context, and devising creative solutions.

For a trusted advisor to function independently, dedicated to the best interests of the customer and otherwise agnostic to product, provider, or brand, it must provide enough value that customers are willing to pay for it. So, it has potential in areas where having a personalized solution is valuable, yet understanding the options takes more time and effort than most customers can devote to it. For example, an insurance company, HMO or other company that already has a wealth of health and behavioral data might be able to become a trusted advisor in wellness. (In my next column, I’ll delve into the significant hurdles existing companies will have to overcome to win that level of trust,  should they choose to pursue this role.)

So what does this have to do with Amazon’s Echo? Sixteen months after its debut, with the Alexa Voice Service available to third-party developers for Echo integration, more and more products are now Echo-enabled. Echo users can control and interact with their homes using voice commands—listening to streaming music, adjusting lighting and temperature, managing “to-do” and shopping lists, checking the calendar, setting timers, reading the news, telling jokes, hailing a ride, and, yes, ordering products off the Internet. These commands are stored in the Amazon cloud, generating an incredibly rich set of context-specific data on everyone in a user’s home. And as Alexa adds more skills and connects to more smart products, the data points grow.

Take this wealth of context-specific data to its logical end, and it seems possible that the machine could “know” you, at least in ways drawn from your daily actions and the data they generate. Still, an ability to restock the toilet paper and offer movie suggestions does not a trusted advisor make.

It is easier, however, to see how human advisors, supported by data and analytics, could provide customized, personalized recommendations to the mass market. For example, data from a smart refrigerator, smart scale, and fitness tracker could give a personal health advisor far more information to help their client achieve meaningful results. And because the data requires no reporting by the individual or gathering from the advisor, such a personal advisor could serve many more clients at this level of attention. Equally important, the advisor could apply learning from what works in one instance to other clients in similar contexts.

This is the crux of the opportunity. Trusted advisors have the potential to become very big businesses.  Passive data collection, machine learning and analytics can enable economies of scope and scale. Trusted advisors could create more value as they get to know individual customers better, across time and domain, and the trusted advisor role will tend to concentrate as a few large players apply the insights gained from serving a few customers to others with similar needs or aspirations. With the buying power of a large customer base, trusted advisors may also exert influence, mobilizing producers and vendors on behalf of their customers.

While Echo is rapidly capturing the context of our homes, a broader proliferation of smart, connected devices and sensored environments is colonizing other parts of our lives. For example, Sense Networks’ MacroSense platform (acquired by YP, otherwise known as Yellowpages.com, in 2014) processes time-stamped mobile phone location data in real time, analyzing it against historical location data to create detailed mobile profiles and to predict individual behavior at a macro level. It’s currently used to target mobile advertising. But what if such technology—augmented by an adviser’s knowledge of the user—were used to generate proactive recommendations about what activities to do, routes to take or even what destinations might offer more value for her time?

As discussed in Deloitte’s Hero’s Journey report, which I co-wrote, the potential value of trusted advisers will likely continue to grow as our lives become filled with more options than we care to evaluate. The rapid advances in both virtual assistants and smart, connected physical objects will enable the opportunity to extend beyond just elites. And while a virtual assistant may never really understand your hopes and aspirations, a human adviser, armed with digitally-generated insight about how you actually spend your days, might just be able to help you achieve them.

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