The best movies are remarkably effective in showing us the near and distant future, with rampant imagined technological advances being front and center in the new visions. Blade Runner, Minority Report, The Matrix, and even the James Bond films, all suggest and promote a flawless future from a tech standpoint. There may be evil villains, but the gadgets and gizmos are always great.  And, as you'd imagine, we're willing to buy into these escapist adventures and fulsome fantasies because we have this long-embedded idea that stories about the future - regardless of how far-fetched - help us imagine, visualize, and eventually actually create that future. They don't call Hollywood "the dream factory" for nothing.

Even more importantly, from a mental health perspective, movies conveniently end - usually by reassuring us of beliefs we already hold or offering us lies that we'd like to believe in. Real life, sadly, persists and drags on. Most of the time, when the made-up world wasn't being destroyed, and before COVID-19 turned theatres into pandemic petri dishes, good films were relatively harmless and more or less satisfying, if not thought provoking. Films were refuges in which to avert our eyes and hide our heads for a couple of hours from some of the ugliest realities of our day-to-day lives. Tom Hanks's films from Forrest Gump to Apollo 13 to You've Got Mail were classic examples of the movies ability to transport us to other times, places and worlds.

We've also learned that watching at home - even on the biggest of screens and in the darkest of caves - isn't anywhere near as effective as a diversion as the movie theater for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the noise, clutter, and chores at home rarely take a break. Nonetheless, in most cases, even watching a bad movie or reruns of decades' old TV shows is still better - in bursts and binges - than facing the real world at least for a relatively few minutes. Except when it isn't.

One of the biggest problems with these fantasies that inform our views of the future is that they set the bar too high and too soon and they subconsciously adjust our expectations accordingly. We have also come to believe that the execution horizon is a fraction of what it actually turns out to be. As a result, in many instances, what we should see as amazing and radical steps forward in a number of areas -- real-time data analysis, enhanced and increasingly reliable and accurate predictions, artificial intelligence/machine learning -- are happening so often and in implementations so close to what we've seen for years on the big screens, that we're slightly weary rather than wondrous. We continually take these things largely for granted and mentally discount just what difficult and remarkable achievements they represent.

One simple example is the increasing ubiquity of voice as a control mechanism and operating system for our homes and vehicles. Ever since 1968, when the HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey spoke up and took command of the spaceship, we've largely assumed that having machines speak and understand our zillions of languages, accents, and idioms was a trivial matter. The reality is that - notwithstanding Alexa, Siri and the passage of more than 50 years - we're still quite far away from any kind of comprehensive and global speech recognition  solutions.

Having said that, customer support and management companies like Balto, whose call center systems listen to live conversations with consumers and alert managers when to intervene or join discussions, are changing and dramatically improving the performance and effectiveness of account reps and other customer-facing personnel by monitoring, interpreting and analyzing millions of conversations daily.

Digital people (think chat bots on steroids) are just around the corner and companies are already creating increasingly convincing robotic performers. Soul Machines uses your web cam and microphone (with your consent) to help its humanistic digital performers hold convincing conversations with you and actually react to your expressions, tone of voice, and other micro visual tells by reading and instantly interpreting your responses.

Image recognition is another area where decades of indoctrination - especially in military movies and spy films - have conditioned us to believe that the computer is already all-seeing and able to track and identify virtually any object. Here again, reality is definitely starting to catch up and companies like Baidu have created systems that are demonstrably faster and more accurate than humans at image checking and sorting. AI-enabled devices are now 20%-to-30% faster and more accurate at reading X-rays than radiologists, and at detecting certain types of skin cancer earlier and more accurately than the human eye.   

But it's usually a profitable exercise to take a step back from the gee-whiz hype and to focus on the current practical applications that are also constantly accelerating and creating new operating environments. These apps, often AI-driven, provide real and immediate competitive advantages in somewhat more mundane contexts. In addition to the obvious economic benefits to the businesses that use them, seeing these new technologies and approaches in operation is a far more valuable and accurate predictor and a powerful indicator of what further enhancements and extensions we can reasonably expect in the near term.

The most important operational innovation in most cases doesn't come from lightning leaps and bounds but from steady, incremental application and improvement. This is an iterative and cyclical process of successive approximation, where the end product is always getting a little bit better rather than postponed perfection -- which never arrives, except in the movies. You launch, you observe, you measure, you analyze, you modify and then you do it all again. If it's done right, it's like a flywheel where each revolution or cycle gains speed and momentum and builds toward a better result.

One example of the total integration of visual technology, advanced predictive tools, and important elements of AI and machine learning into a set of practical and game-changing offerings is Precitaste, which develops Vision AI for the food industry. Starting with external inputs about expected weather, folding in real time drive-in traffic volumes combined with walk-in customers (all captured by on-site cameras), adding historical daily product order volumes, the QSR Brain system is able to track existing product availability, instruct the back-of-house staff to begin preparation and increase units of various products where necessary even before they are ordered. The system also moderates existing product levels on the fly to avoid excessive inventory and product waste due to fluctuations in demand.  

The overall Precitaste system learns and grows "smarter" every single day based on the unique experience at each location, so that it can also create going-forward inventory demand and supply projections -- which typically exceed 90% accuracy when later compared to the actual results for given time periods. This permits highly specific analysis, extremely precise personnel planning and scheduling and largely avoids all of the typical "one size and one strategy fits all" approaches that are typical of fast-food chains. The reduction in product shortfalls and the ability of the QSR Brain to anticipate slack times as well as surges reduces the stress on staff and demonstrably speeds and improves the overall customer experiences.     

On the one hand, building better, faster burgers doesn't seem to be that big a deal. But the real message is directional. It's hard to imagine that any manufacturing business, any production operation involving perishables, or any customer-facing service organization won't be employing systems like these to better inform, project and operate its business in the near future.

More and more of the real-time decision-making will be driven by data and metrics captured instantly and fed into systems like the QSR Brain. And out will come improved results, better customer and employee experiences, cost improvements and material reductions in waste. All automatically, somewhat mystically, and in real time.  

As the saying goes, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.