Alexa and Siri are going at it like two teenage sisters fighting over jeans in their sister's closet. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the next frontier in the race for technology dominance.

Not too long ago,  Amazon, Facebook,  Apple and Google were mere startups struggling for relevance. In the most unlikely of outcomes, they now have valuations exceeding $500 billion. If you had told me that 10 years ago, I would have said, "Sure, the next thing you're going to tell me is Norway will dominate the medal count at the Olympics."  

As the fight for AI takes form, the practices of the "Big Four" have been a subject of controversy. Facebook was accused of selling customer information and perpetuating confirmation bias, by feeding people news they wanted to see. Apple has been unwilling to unlock phones for governments fighting terrorism. Amazon has drawn fire for dragging down warehouse wages and failing to price-protect retailers on its site.

Technology companies have special powers, with access to droves of data and the ability to disintermediate businesses seemingly overnight. As I see it, the mad scramble for AI brings into focus a bigger issue: How do technology companies scale successfully and responsibly?

Finding solutions at scale.

While we are fascinated by the use of AI and machine learning in robotics and the like, this fight is about the consumer.

Companies that can unleash the potential of the human condition are going to make a lot of money. For example, an evolving use of AI is in home security, where smart cameras can upload pertinent footage (of an intrusion, for example) into the Cloud.

As providers build out solutions, "network effects" will become more important--an advantage that the Big Four have over smaller companies. As Scott Galloway points out in his book, The Four, over half of all affluent Americans have Amazon Prime (more than have landlines or go to church). The more products they control, the more customers they will attract.

Amazon is headed--and this should scare the bejesus out of the rest of us--toward zero click solutions. Want a Game of Thrones music box? No worries: Ask Alexa to order one, and she will make it so.

You can combat Amazon's use of choice with AI technologies--such as predictive modeling--to mold very specific offers tailored to customer needs. For example, if you're a retailer, you can study what consumers view, purchase, post and review in order to customize messaging and content.

Using technology for good.

The ultimate use of technology is to make people happy. This is where algorithms become tricky, because they're only as good as the people coding them. 

AI is being used in the management of digital health records to improve client outcomes. In his book The New Digital Age, Eric Schmidt claims that Google knows about the outbreak of a virus before the Centers for Disease Control. In education, bots are teaching students much faster than teachers can--a lesson for businesses still using traditional methods for training.

As we develop AI, our focus should be on how to make our lives better. And for any small business owner, machine learning will reduce costs (like in employee training, for example).

Treat information like the crown jewels.

While the market may persuade providers to safeguard information, hacks into some of the world's most venerable brands--such as Target--prove that all are susceptible to risk. Complete commitment to protecting this information has to be paramount, and perhaps a brand pillar for those entering the space.

Over-invest in data security. I'm not an expert in this field, so I'll only say this: Find an expert, do your research, and protect yourself.

Don't pimp yourself out.

Privacy may be dead. Technology's advances are impressive--and they've been constrained by a still-distrusting facet of society. I actually work with a company that keeps its intellectual property locked up in a black box in the middle of its compound.

You must be very aware of the unintended consequences of selling customer information. Breaking news last week about Cambridge Analytica, a political agency hired by the Trump campaign, accessing information on over 50 million users is just the latest in a series of high-profile controversies over the unseemly use of customer data.

Unless you have a really good reason, don't sell your customers' information, period. Use your special powers responsibly.

Published on: Mar 22, 2018