About Bennat Berger

Bennat Berger is an entrepreneur, investor, and tech writer based in New York City. He is a co-founder and Principal at Novel Property Ventures, a real estate firm that specializes in amassing and managing multifamily residential units in New York City. He is also a founding partner at the investment firm Novel Private Equity, where he oversees investments across a diverse range of interests, from experiential retail to entertainment to supermarket technologies.

What Does It Matter If AI Writes Poetry?

Robots might take our jobs, but they (probably) won’t replace our wordsmiths.

These days, concerns about the slow proliferation of AI-powered workers underly a near-constant, if quiet, discussion about which positions will be lost in the shuffle. According to a report published earlier this year by the Brookings Institution, roughly a quarter of jobs in the United States are at “high risk” of automation. The risk is especially pointed in fields such as food service, production operations, transportation, and administrative support — all sectors that require repetitive work. However, some in creatively-driven disciplines feel that the thoughtful nature of their work protects them from automation.

It’s certainly a memorable passage — both for its utter lack of cohesion and its familiarity. The tone and language almost mimic J.K. Rowling’s style — if J.K. Rowling lost all sense and decided to create cannibalistic characters, that is. Passages like these are both comedic and oddly comforting. They amuse us, reassure us of humans’ literary superiority, and prove to us that our written voices can’t be replaced — not yet.

However, not everything produced by AI is as ludicrous as A Giant Pile of Ash. Some pieces veer on the teetering edge of sophistication. Journalist John A. Tures experimented with the quality of AI-written text for the Observer. His findings? Computers can condense long articles into blurbs well enough, if with errors and the occasional missed point. As Tures described, “It’s like using Google Translate to convert this into a different language, another robot we probably didn’t think about as a robot.” It’s not perfect, he writes, but neither is it entirely off the mark.

Moreover, he notes, some news organizations are already using AI text bots to do low-level reporting. The Washington Post, for example, uses a bot called Heliograf to handle local stories that human reporters might not have the time to cover. Tures notes that these bots are generally effective at writing grammatically-accurate copy quickly, but tend to lose points on understanding the broader context and meaningful nuance within a topic. “They are vulnerable to not understanding satires, spoofs or mistakes,” he writes.

And yet, even with their flaws, this technology is significantly more capable than those who look only at comedic misfires like A Giant Pile of Ash might believe. In an article for the Financial Times, writer Marcus du Sautoy reflects on his experience with AI writing, commenting, “I even employed code to get AI to write 350 words of my current book. No one has yet identified the algorithmically generated passage (which I’m not sure I’m so pleased about, given that I’m hoping, as an author, to be hard to replace).”

Du Sautoy does note that AI struggles to create overarching narratives and often loses track of broader ideas. The technology is far from being able to write a novel — but still, even though he passes off his perturbance at the AI’s ability to fit perfectly within his work as a literal afterthought, the point he makes is essential. AI is coming dangerously close to being able to mimic the appearance of literature, if not the substance.

Take Google’s POEMPORTRAITS as an example. In early spring, engineers working in partnership with Google’s Arts & Culture Lab rolled out an algorithm that could write poetry. The project leaders, Ross Goodwin and Es Devlin, trained an algorithm to write poems by supplying the program with over 25 million words written by 19th-century poets. As Devlin describes in a blog post, “It works a bit like predictive text: it doesn’t copy or rework existing phrases, but uses its training material to build a complex statistical model.”

When users donate a word and a self-portrait, the program overlays an AI-written poem over a colorized, Instagrammable version of their photograph. The poems themselves aren’t half bad on the first read; Devlin’s goes: “This convergence of the unknown hours, arts and splendor of the dark divided spring.”

As Devlin herself puts it, the poetry produced is “Surprisingly poignant, and at other times nonsensical.” The AI-provided poem sounds pretty, but is at best vague, and at worst devoid of meaning altogether. It’s a notable lapse, because poetry, at its heart, is about creating meaning and crafting implication through artful word selection. The turn-of-phrase beauty is essential — but it’s in no way the most important part of writing verse. In this context, AI-provided poetry seems hollow, shallow, and without the depth or meaning that drives literary tradition.

In other words, even beautiful phrases will miss the point if they don’t have a point to begin with.

In his article for the Observer, John A. Tures asked a journalism conference attendee his thoughts on what robots struggle with when it comes to writing. “He pointed out that robots don’t handle literature well,” Tures writes, “covering the facts, and maybe reactions, but not reason. It wouldn’t understand why something matters. Can you imagine a robot trying to figure out why To Kill A Mockingbird matters?”

Robots are going to verge into writing eventually — the forward march is already happening. Prose and poetry aren’t as protected within the creative employment bastion as we think they are; over time, we could see robots taking over roles that journalists used to hold. In our fake-news-dominated social media landscape, bad actors could even weaponize the technology to flood our media feeds and message boards. It’s undoubtedly dangerous — but that’s a risk that’s been talked about before.

Instead, I find myself wondering about the quieter, less immediately impactful risks. I’m worried that when AI writes what we read, our ability to think deeply about ourselves and our society will slowly erode.

Societies and individuals grow only when they are pushed to question themselves; to think, delve into the why behind their literature. We’re taught why To Kill a Mockingbird matters because that process of deep reading and introspection makes us think about ourselves, our communities, and what it means to want to change. In a world where so much of our communication is distilled down into tweet-optimized headlines and blurbs, where we’re not taking the time to read below a headline or first paragraph, these shallow, AI-penned lines are problematic — not because they exist, but because they do not spur thought.

“This convergence of the unknown hours, arts and splendor of the dark divided spring.”

The line sounds beautiful; it even evokes a vague image. Yet, it has no underlying message — although, to be fair, it wasn’t meant to make a point beyond coherency. It isn’t making a point. It’s shallow entertainment under a thin veil of sophistication. It fails at overarching narratives, doesn’t capture nuance, and fails to grasp the heartbeat of human history, empathy, and understanding.

If it doesn’t have that foundation to create a message, what does it have? When we get to a place where AI is writing for us — and be sure, that time will come — are we going to be thinking less? Will there be less depth to our stories, minimal thought inspired by their twists? Will it become an echoing room rather than a path forward? At the very least, will these stories take over our Twitter feeds and Facebook newsfeeds, pulling us away from human-crafted stories that push us to think?

I worry that’s the case. But then again, maybe I’m wrong — maybe reading about how an AI thinks that Ron ate Hermione’s family provides enough dark and hackneyed comedy to reassure our belief that AI will never step beyond its assigned role as a ludicrous word-hacker.

For now, at least.

By |2020-04-17T14:52:02+00:00April 17th, 2020|Culture, Technology|

Will AR Become Retail’s New Normal?

In recent years, smart devices have served as futuristic windows into new (and shoppable) consumer landscapes. The glimpses that tech offers allow us to put imagination aside and bring potential purchases into our lives for a trial run — virtually.

The opportunities are near-endless; rather than order glasses online and hope for a good fit, customers at Warby Parker can assess their favorite lenses with a quick selfie. Instead of lacing and unlacing countless pairs of shoes in-store, Nike shoppers can scan their feet and find a perfect fit by “trying on” their favorite products virtually.

Even in-store dressing rooms have their digital twins. At the Gap, customers can pick from five common body types to see how their favorite new styles will look on them without the time-consuming hassle of cycling through several outfits.

Augmented reality — technology that facilitates digital additions to real-world images — is slowly becoming an accepted part of the retail experience. AR allows us to visualize the goods we see in-store and online within our day-to-day environment. In a way, the tech’s capabilities speak to the heart of retail. Like store displays and flashy product photos, AR-powered apps help consumers visualize potential purchases within their home environments and daily routines — and even convince them to buy.

Currently, AR tech is still somewhat of a novelty. However, it seems likely that AR will evolve into an everyday aspect of retail shopping within a few short years. Researchers for Gartner found that 46 percent of surveyed retailers intended to deploy AR or VR customer experience solutions by 2020, and estimated that a whopping 100 million consumers would shop in AR online and in-store by the same year. Along the same lines, Goldman Sachs estimates that the global market for VR and AR in retail will top $1.6 billion by 2025.

However, the number of AR-powered shoppers is impressive even today. Earlier this year, eMarketer released a report that quantified the number of consumers who would use AR more than once a month at 68.7 million people, or 20.8 percent of the US population. The report points to increased familiarity with and interest in the technology as a significant driver behind the AR retail boom. One major source of that interest, the researchers write, was Pokémon Go.

While it would be oversimplifying to say that Pokémon Go sparked retail’s AR revolution, it wouldn’t be entirely incorrect, either. The virally-successful game served as many consumers’ first introduction to the technology’s engaging capabilities. When the game first exploded onto the market in 2016, it was all but commonplace to see people paused on sidewalks, furiously tapping their screen in an attempt to capture a digital creature.

It was the first wildly successful AR game. Unlike other smartphone apps, Pokémon Go superimposed its challenges over a real-world map of its user’s location, creating an immersive and novel experience for players. Apptopia estimates that at its peak, the game had 100 million users worldwide. It introduced countless people to the idea of integrating augmented reality into their daily lives — and sparked a few conversations among investors, too.

Soon after the game’s debut, CNBC reporters quoted Cowen & Co. analyst Oliver Chen as saying that Pokémon Go had the power to transform retail. As Chen explains, “The new free-to-play [augmented reality] gaming app has broad implications for retail as it addresses declining mall traffic, plus emerging trends toward social experience and health [and] wellness. [The game] illustrates how augmented reality could potentially play a more significant role in retail over time.”

Pokémon Go’s heyday has long passed us by, but the transformational potential of AR for retail remains. Partly because of the game’s popularity, AR applications have become increasingly common and accessible. Moreover, as analysts for the above eMarketer study point out, support for AR development is on the rise.

“The introduction of Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore software development kits (SDKs) in 2017 signaled the tech industry’s confidence in—and ongoing support of—AR experiences,” the researchers write. “This is spurring developers to accelerate activity and create more applications.”

So, what benefits could these new, retail-focused AR applications bring? In theory, AR products could gamify the shopping experience, pique interest in products, promote in-store foot traffic, and improve customer engagement. The last is particularly important; in an age where online shopping is not-so-subtly encroaching on traditional stores, retailers face increased pressure to better engage customers by redefining shopping trips into shopping experiences.

AR presents a means to do so. Statistics provided by Retail Perceptions indicate that 61 percent of surveyed shoppers prefer to shop at stores that offer retail experiences, 71 percent would return more often if AR was available, and 40 percent would pay more for a product if they could try it out in AR first.

AR gives retailers the opportunity to boost consumer engagement, make shopping more of an experience than a chore, and create a more personalized digital experience for customers. In some cases, AR-powered ads can even establish stronger touchpoints on social media platforms. Where consumers might have zipped past a traditional ad without a thought, the interactive nature of AR encourages platform users to pause their scrolling and engage with the advertisement — thereby making it more likely that they will check out or even buy a product.

The shift to AR is already well underway. In the summer, L’Oreal Armani Beauty announced its intention to be the first beauty brand to integrate AR capabilities into its WeChat application. It has a new take on the virtual dressing room; in China, consumers will be able to virtually try out cosmetics and share their screenshots on social media. For L’Oreal, AR tech will create an opportunity for better customer experience, sales, and consumer-generated marketing all via one app.

If this announcement demonstrates anything, it would be that despite its relative nascence, AR solutions in retail are continually evolving. Today, those tools merge digital and retail capabilities, providing a means for companies to expand their stores through a camera lens.

It will be interesting to see what new retail opportunities will bloom from AR’s growth next.

Originally published on Disrupt Magazine

By |2020-03-17T19:08:17+00:00March 6th, 2020|Technology|

Could Dubai’s $350 million sustainable supercity work in New York?

When judged from a distance, Dubai doesn’t exactly embody a shining example of sustainability.

The most populous city in the United Arab Emirates is a glittering, luxurious metropolis in the middle of a barren desert. It demands power and burns resources as-needed — and it needs a breathtaking amount. According to Reuters, three-quarters of all electricity produced in the UAE is used to cool buildings across the emirates and ensure that residents stay fresh, thriving and entertained.

The use of those resources can be mind-boggling. Consider Ski Dubai as an example; with just a short trip downtown, city residents can trade their light clothing and sunglasses for ski parkas and snow boots and revel in wintertime fun. On Ski Dubai’s indoor mountain, air conditioners work around the clock to maintain the slopes’ winter-wonderland illusion in a place where summer temperatures routinely top 113 degrees Fahrenheit.

For National Geographic journalist Robert Kunzig, Dubai’s ski slopes are just a symbol of Dubai’s unsustainable approach. “Dubai burns far more fossil fuel to air-condition its towers of glass,” he writes. “To keep the taps running in all those buildings, it essentially boils hundreds of Olympic pools worth of seawater every day. And to create more beachfront for more luxury hotels and villas, it buried coral reefs under immense artificial islands.”

And yet, despite the almost comic lack of sustainable thought that these day-to-day realities reveal, Dubai might just be on-track to outpace Western hubs in their collective race towards a green future. Only 15 miles away from the resource-gobbling slopes of Ski Dubai, a new — even opposing — philosophy has laid its first metaphorical bricks.

Now for something completely different

Dubai’s Sustainable City is an icon of sustainability. First established in 2015, the $354 million mega project aims to limit its negative environmental impact as much as possible and to become a net-zero settlement that produces all of the (renewable) energy it needs to run day-to-operations.

Today, the community encompasses 113 acres, 500 villas and over 3,000 residents. Every home in the settlement has a solar panel on its roof. Residents are permitted to use public transport and electric vehicles; however, gasoline-powered cars are banned outright from most neighborhoods. Rather than offering traditional fuel stations, the community hosts charging stops.

The environmental benefits of these and other sustainability-minded designs are inarguable. Analysts indicate that the average annual water consumption in Sustainable City is roughly 40 percent lower than an equivalent metric in Dubai proper. Similarly, electricity costs for the settlement are a whopping 40 percent less than the city’s green building standards require. According to a Khaleej Times report, the settlement has limited its carbon footprint by 150 tons of carbon dioxide per year by using biodiesel during construction.

The community’s approach to sustainable living also has had a significant impact on waste management. As writers for Energy Central recently reported, “Because of recycling, the average waste generation at [the Sustainable City] is only 1.17 kilograms per person per day, which is 60 percent lower than the average. With this, [the city] has successfully diverted 85 percent of its waste from landfills.”

Every home in the settlement has solar panels on the roof.

Taken together, these reports prove that a sustainability mindset can power an urban community — literally. Its very existence pushes those of us overseas to wonder if similar projects might find the same success in our backyards.

“The Sustainable City cannot end here,” Karim el-Jisr, chief innovation officer for the Sustainable City Institute, told Euronews last February. “Unless we see another 1,000 Sustainable Cities, we will not make a difference to the planet. A true measure of our success is not what you see [in Dubai], but […] replication by others and by ourselves.”

So, this begs the question — if a sustainable community can spring up inside a city as notoriously environmentally unfriendly as Dubai, shouldn’t a similar project work near a city such as New York City, which is already relatively green?

A tale of two cities

Unfortunately, the issue isn’t that simple. While New York undoubtedly could benefit from the car-free neighborhoods, energy-efficient buildings and recycling-centric resource management policies that the Sustainable City model offers, the likelihood of such a community springing up in the five boroughs is close to nil.

Unlike Dubai, New York City is already heavily built up. While Dubai has the space — and resources — to construct an environmentally friendly neighborhood from the ground up, New York definitively does not. The space issue aside, Dubai has put years of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private funding towards building Sustainable City. Needless to say, New York City is not in a position to contribute the same.

As Alessandro Melis, an architecture professor at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, put the matter for Reuters, “[Projects such as Sustainable City] are good experiments that can tell us many things, but at this moment in time it would be more important to focus on how we can transform the urban fabric that we already have.”

New York won’t be able to host a separate community the way that Dubai can — but it may be able to make a similarly effective change from within its existing framework.

It is worth noting that the city already has a robustly sustainable foundation; in 2016, New York ranked as the 26th most sustainable city in the world on the Arcadis sustainable index. This ranking is partially due to the city’s robust public transportation system and existing sustainability measures.

However, more can and should be done. It seems likely New York will undergo a sustainability retrofit in upcoming years, especially given recent legislative moves. Last year, the city passed the Climate Mobilization Act, which, as of last month will mandate that all buildings larger than 25,000 square feet post their energy efficiency grades near public entryways. In 2024, these rules will become even stricter, imposing fines on those that fall below a certain grade.

Writers for City Lab further report that the Climate Mobilization Act will institute a “Fossil Fuel Cap.” They write, “The cap will require buildings to be upgraded or retrofitted with things like more energy-efficient heaters and boilers, as well as solar panels and windows that reduce heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer.”

Taken together, this new legislation shifts the responsibility — at least in part — for reimagining a sustainable New York onto property owners. This choice poses a few challenges; unlike in Dubai, where efforts were coordinated and funded under one overarching vision for a sustainable community, New York’s sustainability efforts will be moved forward by a disjointed cohort of property owners as they abide by new legislation. It’s an ironically inefficient means to go about achieving sustainability, even if the government does offer some financial incentives to adopt sustainable building practices (PDF).

However, these roadblocks will not stop New Yorkers from achieving sustainability on par with Dubai’s Sustainable City. While a lack of resources and space prevents New York from mimicking the UAE’s cohesive approach to building sustainable communities, it does have the ability to retrofit and innovate within its existing urban framework.

Unlike Dubai, New York’s sustainability efforts won’t be an addition to its borders, but an evolution within them. It will be different, for sure, and perhaps take longer to achieve its sustainability goals — but the end result will be no less beneficial to the environment.

Originally published on GreenBiz

By |2020-05-07T19:07:14+00:00February 25th, 2020|Urban Planning|

If In-Store Experience Falls Short, Product Quality Doesn’t Matter

Most consumers aren’t in the habit of shopping in stores they dislike — and who could blame them? After all, a store visit requires them to leave their homes, sit in traffic, and physically search for the products that they want. Why would they go to the effort that traditional shopping requires if they know that the employees they meet will be rude, the store layout confusing, and the overall experience frustrating?

The truth of the matter is that if your customers find their time in-store underwhelming, the quality of your product won’t matter. They will go elsewhere — and in the digital age, “elsewhere” usually means “online.”

Online shopping has ushered in an entirely new definition for consumer convenience in retail. Digital experiences are painstakingly personalized; as one writer for the 2019 Store Experience Study describes, “Since the rise of the Internet, retailers have done an exemplary job of making their customers feel like royalty each and every time they were engaged online. Retailers made it easy to find items (which were always in stock), knew their purchase history, knew their likes and dislikes, and made suggestions for complementary or supplementary products.”

The cherry on top, of course, is that once a customer swipes, clicks, and taps their way through the ordering process, they can expect their chosen product to arrive at their doorstep within a few short days.

When faced with that degree of convenience, how can traditional brick-and-mortar retailers compete? Younger consumers have already enthusiastically taken to online shopping; according to statistics from Kinsta, roughly 67% of millennials and 56% of Gen X’ers prefer buying online to browsing a physical store.

While online shopping might have claimed top marks for convenience, brick-and-mortar stores are on the verge of reclaiming customers on the basis of shopping experience. If retailers can prove to their consumers that an hour-long store visit is an entertaining diversion, rather than a chore, they may have the chance to redefine consumer expectations for in-person shopping and revitalize the brick-and-mortar landscape.

This shift is already underway. According to the Store Experience Study mentioned above, retailers have begun focusing on personalizing customer experience (51%), empowering store associates to provide better service (48%), and rethinking the design of the in-store customer journey (31%) — all to boost consumers’ interest in in-store shopping. This new strategic focus has likely contributed to the recent uptick of brick-and-mortar performance. As of 2018, retail sales had risen nearly 6% since the year before, and roughly 3,600 net new stores had opened their doors.

The answer is clear: retailers need to recast the shopping experience as a form of convenient entertainment, rather than a digitally-avoidable trip. Below, I’ve listed a few ways to do so.

Rethink the Purpose of a Shopping Trip

When consumers visit stores in the future, they should come out of interest — not necessity. Retailers need to incorporate entertainment and engagement elements into their customer journey designs.

Consider J.C. Penney’s recent redesign of a store in Hurst, Texas, as an example. Described by the company’s leaders as “experiential at its core,” the redesign incorporates service offerings into its lifestyle brand. Now, customers can not only purchase makeup in the beauty section but also undergo a workshop on how to achieve model-perfect looks while in-store. Similarly, the store has begun offering fitness classes alongside their activewear brands.

The department store also recently launched a partnership with Pinterest to help shoppers better explore the store’s offerings during a home decor refresh. Using J.C. Penney’s in-store tool, shoppers can answer a few simple questions and see a curated Pinterest board that lists J.C. Penney products suited to their needs and tastes.

It is too early to know if this revolutionary approach to experiential shopping will pay off. If it does, however, J.C. Penney may have created an innovative blueprint for future department stores.

Meld Digital Convenience With In-Store Experience

Brick and mortar stores may not be defined by technology, but they can certainly benefit from it. By weaving technology into their in-store experiential strategy, traditional retailers can provide the same convenience that e-retailers pride themselves on offering. With an app, for example, retailers could theoretically allow consumers to schedule a fast pickup, repay online, check to see if a given item is in stock, or even access exclusive digital coupons. Such a strategy would make in-store shopping nearly as quick and convenient as online shopping — if not more so, given that consumers don’t need to wait for their item to be delivered.

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the digital age won’t spell the end for traditional retail. Instead, it will challenge brick-and-mortar stores to reinvent the in-person shopping experience to be more engaging, entertaining, and convenient than ever before.

Originally published on ScoreNYC

By |2020-02-13T16:25:07+00:00January 16th, 2020|Business|

In the Digital Age, Companies Need a Human Touch

Today, a customer’s entire experience with a company — from first inquiry to final transaction — can and often does occur entirely online. Many consumers seem to prefer it that way, too. According to data collected by Nextiva, 57% of surveyed respondents said that they would rather contact companies via email or social media, instead of by voice-based customer support.

The shift to a tech-savvy business foundation isn’t just convenient for consumers — it comes with considerable benefits for businesses too. In one report published by Juniper Research, analysts projected that automated systems would save a collective $8 billion in customer support costs by 2022. That’s a compelling financial argument for businesses. Smart Insights estimates that 34% of companies have already undergone a digital transformation, while researchers for Seagate anticipate that over 60% of CEOs globally will begin prioritizing digital strategies to improve customer experience by the end of this year.

Integrating technology into our day-to-day business operations is a no-brainer, given its potential to lessen costs, boost convenience, and improve consumer experiences. However, in our race to meet the digital age, we may be leaving one critical aspect of customer service behind: human connection.

As much as consumers appreciate the convenience and speed that digital tools and systems facilitate, they also need to feel a genuine human connection and know that there are people behind the AI-powered customer hotline. As one writer puts the matter in an article for Business Insider, “A satisfactory customer experience depends on how well a company can relate to a customer on an emotional level. To create memorable experiences, employees who are curious and have a genuine desire to assist the customers can set brands apart.”

Business consultant Chris Malone and social psychologist Susan T. Fiske researched this emotional connection for their book, The Human Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies. In the text, they write that consumers gravitate towards companies similarly to how they flock to friends; if they perceive a business as being emotionally warm and welcoming, but not particularly competent, they will still enjoy the experience and like the brand. In contrast, if a company is competent but cold in its customer engagement, consumers tend to visit only when circumstances demand it.

The ideal, they say, is for companies to be both warm and competent. Within the context of our digitally-driven world, striking that balance means integrating consumer service technology without wholly excising human personality.

Businesses need to identify when their AI-powered chatbot or customer service channel crosses over the line from useful to canned or frustrating. Sometimes, a robot voice just isn’t helpful enough; according to statistics published by American Express, 40% of customers prefer talking to a human service representative when they struggle with complex problems. Consumers should have the means to reach out to human representatives if they can’t solve their problems through automated channels.

People want to connect with a brand that has personality, voice, and empathy — even across digital channels. Social media platforms have evolved into significant touchpoints for businesses today; researchers for Nextiva estimate that over 35% of consumers in the U.S. reached out to a business through social media in 2017. Their expectations, too, are significant — 48% of the customers who contact a company via social media expect a response to their questions or complaints within 24 hours. Even so, a cold, automated response may be just as ineffective as no response at all.

Emerging technology is not a be-all, end-all, unquestionable solution to our problems. Businesses need to treat digital channels with all the personality, empathy, and care that they would offer during a client call. If they rely on canned responses or AI bots, they may find their consumer pool shrinking as customers defect for companies with more perceived warmth.

Technology is convenient, yes — however, the convenience it creates should never come at the cost of human connection.

Originally published on ScoreNYC

By |2020-02-11T15:14:26+00:00November 26th, 2019|Uncategorized|

Soon, a “Smart Home” Will Just Be a Home

As the line dividing the internet and the physical world blurs in ever-increasing ways, it shouldn’t be a surprise that online amenities have arrived in the modern home. The growth of smart homes is predicted to increase massively over the next few years, and it’s not hard to see why. They offer convenience and a modern sheen to home living, but more importantly a high-tech layer of security that empowers homeowners to better keep their dwellings and family members safe.

The pitch is a compelling one to homeowners, as well as to investors. According to statistics provided by Statista, analysts anticipate that revenue in the smart home market will grow 15.43% year-over-year. Household penetration currently stands at 27.5% and is further projected to hit 47.4% by 2023. Smart homes are undoubtedly popular; for investors, the growing market could prove lucrative.
Here’s why homeowners are flocking towards smart home technology — and why tech-savvy real estate investors should take notice of the increasing consumer interest.

Staying guarded through tech

The most vulnerable point for most homes is the most common point of entry: the front door. Experts estimate that over a third of burglaries result from unlocked or unsecured front doors, meaning a safely locked entryway can be among the best deterrents from intruders. Smart locks that are activated and deactivated remotely via your home wifi leave homeowners secure in the knowledge that their homes are safely protected while they’re not there. Security-enabled apps like Nest can monitor the status of all entryways, meaning front or side doors can be unlocked for trusted guests or service workers while you’re at work or on vacation. Alerts to your phone can let you know if doors have been breached, meaning you’ll know the instant your home security company does that there’s been a break-in. While this won’t replace being actually there to survey the trouble, it provides some peace of mind to know your home tech is keeping you apprised of all that’s happening while you’re out of reach.

Danger alerts at the speed of WiFi

Crime isn’t the only major danger that smart tech can help homeowners face. The danger of house fires hasn’t been eliminated with technology, but cutting-edge smoke detectors offer a level of security that can only be found when including the most modern safety features. Photoelectric sensors can identify fires by type, catching even smoldering fires with little flame sooner than traditional detectors can. Linked to a smart home sound system, a smoke detector can even use voice notifications to alert you, over home speakers, where the fire is centered and how best to get out. In a situation where split-second decisions can prove life-changing, smart tech is a powerful safeguard for homeowners and their families.

Words of warning

Of course, when it comes to security, smart home tech presents one brand-new vulnerability that homeowners of the past never had to worry about. It may sound odd to consider, but the threat of home hacking is a real danger in a world where locks, smoke alarms, and other fixtures are all internet-enabled. The cat burglar of today may scope out his victims with a laptop or smartphone in hand, ready to attack with malicious software designed to disable home security or just harass and annoy homeowners by disabling appliances and lights.

Fortunately, safeguards against smart home hacking are similar to the ones we already take while online. Expert studies of security flaws found some fixes that ought to be familiar to anyone used to performing a basic cybersecurity routine. Two-factor authentication, strong passwords, and keeping up with regular security updates can keep smart home tech safe from malicious forces both online and in person. While most of us are probably new to downloading security updates to our door locks, the benefits of smarter control over home safety easily outweigh such a relatively minor inconvenience.

Convenience and novelty aren’t the only reasons smart homes have become attractive to buyers in the past decade. The above security features empower homeowners today to take greater control over the sanctity of their property, even when they’re thousands of miles away. For keeping your possessions, your home, and your family safe, smart homes present the next step in control over what happens to our homes. While this new opportunity does admittedly create its own new challenges, the benefits should entice anyone looking to fortify their castle, no matter what size. In the future, we can certainly expect homeowner buy-in — and investor interest — to grow.

Originally published on Medium

By |2020-02-11T15:19:07+00:00November 6th, 2019|Technology|

Cable is Dead, Long Live (Streaming) Cable

It’s no secret that cable is on its way out. Ever since Netflix’s sparked an explosion of public interest in streaming entertainment with its 2013 series hit House of Cards, traditional channels of access — cable, satellite, dish — have been rendered all but obsolete.

According to reports published by Leichtman Research Group, a firm that centers its research and analysis in the media and entertainment sectors, the six most popular cable companies lost a whopping 910,000 video subscribers in 2018. Satellite TV and DirectTV services fared even worse — analysts estimated that the former lost around 2,360,000 subscribers and the latter 1,236,000 that same year. The sharp decline isn’t new, either; LRG researchers believe that the user base for traditional services has sunk by nearly ten million since the first quarter of 2012. 

Streaming is slowly outmoding cable — except, of course, in cases where cable has managed to latch onto streaming itself. Interestingly, cable’s primary source of subscription growth has been via virtual MVPDs (vMVPDs), or services that offer a bundle of television channels through the internet without providing traditional data transport infrastructure. LRG analysts estimate that roughly four million subscribers have signed on for vMPVD services such as PlayStation Vue, YouTube TV, and Hulu Live. But these services seem more like a speedbump on cable’s decline than an actual stop, a gateway service to help longtime cable enthusiasts transition into a streaming norm. 

Streaming entertainment is the new normal, and any millennial could build a compelling case for why the change is a good one. After all, why would you pay for expensive cable bundles and struggle with limited viewing schedules when you can see your favorite shows and movies on Netflix or Hulu for less than $15 per month? Streaming offers original content at a reasonable price point and — unlike cable — is accessible from wherever an internet connection is available. It’s so popular that new streaming services have begun popping up like weeds. Apple TV+ goes online on November 1st, Disney+ opens for registration in November, and NBC’s Peacock is set to go live sometime in 2020. 

Cable is dying. But will streaming, the reason behind cable’s slow extinction, one day face the same decline? 

Cable is Dead, Long Live (Streaming) Cable

As it turns out, the streaming coup we see today may be just another remix of the same old industry song. 

Consider the now-giant HBO’s humble roots as an example. The service was arguably the first network to offer premium cable and ask viewers to pay a subscription fee — and it launched its experiment in the town of Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania shortly after Hurricane Agnes hit the area in 1972. The initiative had a rocky start, reportedly losing nearly $9,000 per month as it struggled to lay cable and pay for a microwave link to transmit entertainment offerings from New York City. But the project ultimately paid off in spades, heralding a new era for paid cable television. 

Cable television was new, convenient, and engaging. Its subscribers could view new and exciting content that wasn’t limited by the profanity and nudity guidelines imposed on basic cable programs. Eventually, cable providers began offering bundles to aggregate channels and make accessing paid content easy, convenient, and affordable.  

Sound familiar yet? 

Today, streaming entertainment services offer the same convenience, aggregation, and affordability that characterized cable — but better. Importantly, they also provide channel subscriptions a la carte, a move which cable companies tended to avoid out of concern that it would negatively impact subscription numbers

When giants such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime claimed dominance over the market, streaming seemed like the answer to all of cable subscribers’ problems. However, as more niche entertainment stream providers enter the field, we appear to be falling back into cable’s old woes. 

Today, viewers have over 300 streaming video services to choose from, each with their own subscription price. Many host original content, knowing that high-quality and exclusive offerings attract subscribers. According to one recent study from Deloitte, 57% of paid streaming users — and 71% of millennial users — report subscribing to access original content. However, users’ willingness to pay for content has its limits. As Deloitte’s researchers put the matter: “nearly one-half (47 percent) are frustrated by the growing number of subscriptions and services they need to piece together to watch what they want. Forty-eight percent say it’s harder to find the content they want to watch when it is spread across multiple services.”

Consumers don’t want to make a patchwork out of their streaming services to get the content they want. The fragmentation and consumer difficulty we face now is likely to intensify, given the sheer number of high-profile streaming platforms set to launch soon. As a result, talk of using bundling as a solution to subscriber frustrations has returned; according to IndieWire, WarnerMedia is reportedly aiming to launch a streaming platform that would bundle HBO, Cinemax, and some Warner Bros. content into one service. It would have a higher price point, too — $16-$17 per month. It seems only fair to expect prices to creep up further as other, competing bundles undergo discussion.  

Digital streaming is, without question, more convenient and better-suited to audience needs for affordable original content than paid cable. Streaming’s coup is a well-deserved one. However, it seems naive to think that the problems consumers complained of with cable — higher prices, annoying bundles — won’t appear as time goes on. 

Cable is dead. Long live (streaming) cable.

By |2020-02-11T15:15:14+00:00October 15th, 2019|Culture, Technology|

NYC Welcomes Tech, But Only If It Helps New Yorkers

New York City is a leading hub for technology and innovation — but you wouldn’t guess it by its most-hyped headlines. Ironically, some of the most eye-catching recent news in the tech sector centers around how the city prevented one of the most influential tech titans from setting the foundation for a Big Tech colony in Long Island City. 

For the short span of a few months, it seemed as though New York was teetering on the verge of supplanting Silicon Valley as a home base for major tech companies. The city had a plan — and a provisional agreement — to host Amazon’s much-courted HQ2 within its borders that many in the tech industry heralded as the start of a new era of innovation and prosperity. During a press conference shortly after the announcement of the agreement, Governor Andrew Cuomo celebrated, saying: “This is the largest economic development initiative that has ever been done by the city or the state or the city and the state, together.”

The agreement certainly had some startling numbers to back it; analysts projects that the deal would generate no less than $27.5 billion in state and city revenue over 25 years with a 9:1 ratio of revenue to subsidies. HQ2 was expected to create roughly 25,000 jobs in its first decade, in addition to the 1,300 construction jobs and 107,000 direct and indirect jobs the building initiative would require. Amazon further promised to launch a tech startup incubator and a new school on its campus, as well as allocate as much as $5 million to workforce development efforts. 

On the surface, the partnership between New York and Amazon was a tech proponent’s dream come true; however, the proposed HQ2 deal faced vehement opposition almost immediately after its announcement. Several protests against the initiative were held in Long Island City in the fall of 2018. By February of 2019, the deal was off. 

Now, New York’s highly-publicized divorce from Amazon’s HQ2 plans could be interpreted as a sign that the city wasn’t interested in supplanting Silicon Valley as a home for Big Tech. However, I would argue that the issue the city had with Amazon isn’t based in bias against Big Tech or tech as a whole, but in concern that Amazon’s presence would come at too high a cost to the people of New York. The city courted the tech giant, perhaps to the point of overreach; all told, the public funds and kickbacks given to Amazon would have totaled close to $3 billion, with the city and state paying the e-retailer as much as $48,000 per job. With that cost, opponents argued, were the “benefits” Amazon offered even worth their price?  

Rejecting Amazon doesn’t mean that New York City is hostile to the tech sector — quite the opposite. The city wants a tech sector, but it wants it on terms that suit the people who call it home, rather than those who run Big Tech’s boardrooms. It seems to be relatively successful in its pursuit of that goal, too: Startup Genome reports that NYC ranks first globally in funding availability and quality in NYC, and the metro region alone received $13 billion in funding in 2018. In 2018, New York’s tech sector represented 333,000 jobs in 2018 and encompassed a full 10% of the nation’s developers

Moreover, it seems probable that the city will continue to serve as fertile ground for tech-center development, given that it currently supports over 120 universities and is ranked first globally for the number of STEM-field graduates produced annually. Those students are likely to stay and contribute, too; tech firms in New York City have the fastest average hiring time for engineers across all U.S. tech ecosystems and offer wages that are, on average, 49% higher than private-sector rates elsewhere. 

Amazon’s failed HQ2 deal notwithstanding, even Big Tech is expanding its presence in the city. This past spring, Netflix put down $100 million for a production hub in Williamsburg and promised to create over 100 new jobs in Manhattan. In late 2018 — around the same time that Amazon was fielding controversy over HQ2 — Google committed $1 billion to create a new Lower Manhattan campus and double its local workforce. Facebook wants to open up shop in Hudson Yard; Apple is reportedly looking for more office space in the city. 

The signs are clear that, despite what the failed HQ2 deal might indicate, New York City wants tech, big and small alike. The city will continue to keep pace, if not ultimately overtake, the Silicon Valley tech scene. Provided, of course, that the tech investment it facilitates supports — and is in turn supported by — its people. 

By |2019-09-23T16:55:59+00:00September 23rd, 2019|Current Events, Technology|

AI Fails and What They Teach Us About Emerging Technology

These days, we’ve become all but desensitized to the miraculous convenience of AI. We’re not surprised when we open Netflix to find feeds immediately and perfectly tailored to our tastes, and we’re not taken aback when Facebook’s facial recognition tech picks our face out of a group-picture lineup. Ten years ago, we might have made a polite excuse and beat a quick retreat if we heard a friend asking an invisible person to dim the lights or report the weather. Now, we barely blink — and perhaps wonder if we should get an Echo Dot, too. 

We have become so accustomed to AI quietly incorporating itself into almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives that we’ve stopped having hard walls on our perception of possibility. Rather than address new claims of AI’s capabilities with disbelief, we regard it with interested surprise and think — could I use that? 

But what happens when AI doesn’t work as well as we expect? What happens when our near-boundless faith in AI’s usefulness is misplaced, and the high-tech tools we’ve begun to rely on start cracking under the weight of the responsibilities we delegate? 

Let’s consider an example.

AI Can’t Cure Cancer — Or Can It? An IBM Case Study 

When IBM’s Watson debuted in 2014, it charmed investors, consumers, and tech aficionados alike. Proponents boasted that Watson’s information-gathering capabilities would make it an invaluable resource for doctors who might otherwise not have the time or opportunity to keep up with the constant influx of medical knowledge. During a demo that same year, Watson dazzled industry professionals and investors by analyzing an eclectic collection of symptoms and offering a series of potential diagnoses, each ranked by the system’s confidence and linked to relevant medical literature. The AI’s clear knowledge of rare disease and its ability to provide diagnostic conclusions was both impressive and inspiring. 

Watson’s positive impression spurred investment. Encouraged by the AI’s potential, MD Anderson, a cancer center within the University of Texas, signed a multi-million dollar contract with IBM to apply Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities to its fight against cancer. Watson for Oncology was meant to parse enormous quantities of case data and provide novel insights that would help doctors provide better and more effective care to cancer patients. 

Unfortunately, the tool didn’t exactly deliver on its marketing pitch. 

In 2017, auditors at the University of Texas submitted a caustic report claiming that Watson not only cost MD Anderson over $62 million but also failed to achieve its goals. Doctors lambasted the tool for its propensity to give bad advice; in one memorable case reported by the Verge, the AI suggested that a patient with severe bleeding receive a drug that would worsen their condition. Luckily the patient was hypothetical, and no real people were hurt; however, users were still understandably annoyed by Watson’s apparent ineptitude. As one particularly scathing doctor said in a report for IBM, “This product is a piece of s—. We bought it for marketing and with hopes that you would achieve the vision. We can’t use it for most cases.”

But is the project’s failure to deliver on its hype all Watson’s fault? Not exactly. 

Watson’s main flaw was with implementation, not technology. When the project began, doctors entered real patient data as intended. However, Watson’s guidelines changed often enough that updating those cases became a chore; soon, users switched to hypothetical examples. This meant that Watson could only make suggestions based on the treatment preferences and information provided by a few doctors, rather than the actual data from an entire cancer center, thereby skewing the advice it provided. 

Moreover, the AI’s ability to discern connections is only useful to a point. It can note a pattern between a patient with a given illness, their condition, and the medications prescribed, but any conclusions drawn from such analysis would be tenuous at best. The AI cannot definitively determine whether a link is correlation, causation, or mere coincidence — and thus risks providing diagnostic conclusions without evidence-based backing.

Given the lack of user support and the shortage of real information, is it any surprise that Watson failed to deliver innovative answers? 

What Does Watson’s Failure Teach Us?

Watson’s problem is more human than it is technical. There are three major lessons that we can pull from the AI’s crash: 

We Need to Check Our Expectations.

We tend to believe that AI and emerging technology can achieve what its developers say that it can. However, as Watson’s inability to separate correlation and causation demonstrates, the potential we read in marketing copy can be overinflated. As users, we need to have a better understanding and skepticism of emerging technology before we begin relying on it. 

Tools Must Be Well-Integrated. 

If doctors had been able to use the Watson interface without continually needing to revise their submissions for new guidelines, they might have provided more real patient information and used the tool more often than they did. This, in turn, may have allowed Watson to be more effective in the role it was assigned. Considering the needs of the human user is just as important as considering the technical requirements of the tool (if not more so). 

We Must Be Careful

If the scientists at MD Anderson hadn’t been so careful, or if they had followed Watson blindly, real patients could have been at risk. We can never allow our faith in an emerging tool to be so inflated that we lose sight of the people it’s meant to help. 

Emerging technology is exciting, yes — but we also need to take the time to address the moral and practical implications of how we bring that seemingly-capable technology into our lives. At the very least, it would seem wise to be a little more skeptical in our faith. 

By |2019-09-03T16:44:02+00:00September 3rd, 2019|Uncategorized|

How AR and VR Could Change Tourism in New York

Tourist itineraries in New York City are predictable enough to be b-roll cliche. Tourists are easy enough to spot: they move in flocks through Central Park, take selfies at the Statue of Liberty, stare in awe from their slow-moving tour buses at the Empire State Building, and — of course — purchase “I Heart NYC” t-shirts from overpriced carts. The New York that visitors enjoy is predictable, yes, but also vivid, exciting, and well-packed with familiar landmarks; each new day offers wide-eyed tourists the chance to experience famous sights firsthand.

But what if the tourism experience could span more than a well-walked map of landmarks? What if visitors could peel back the cliches of New York’s touristy exterior and delve into its rich history? Augmented and virtual reality technologies may provide a means to do just that, revolutionizing the way visitors experience both the city and its history.

VR and AR’s entry into the tourism sector isn’t all that surprising, given its growing popularity. Analysts for Goldman Sachs estimate that the market for both will overtake $1.6 billion by 2025. Figures from Statista further indicate that as of 2018, 117 million people worldwide were active VR users — a notable leap from four years before, when only 200,000 actively used the technology. Both AR and VR are well-known for their ability to create immersive digital experiences; they empower consumers to delve into their favorite fantasy gaming worlds, experience movies in near-overwhelming sensory experiences, and even virtually “trial” products before buying them in a brick-and-mortar store. With tourism, virtual- and augmented reality technologies promise to add another layer of immersion to an industry that already centers on creating memorable experiences.

VR Expands Tourism Possibilities

Every pre-planned walk or guided bus tour has its limits. Tourists can’t duck under the metaphorical velvet rope to explore their favorite attractions; they have to stay within set, guide-approved bounds. With VR, those limitations are less constricting, offering virtual access to the tourist without compromising the security of the site itself.

As Dr. Nigel Jones, a senior lecturer in information systems at Cardiff Metropolitan University noted for a recent article for the BBC, VR provides “something that’s more tangible to the [tourist]. They can see where they’re going to go, see what’s happening in that location […] The other advantage is to give people an experience that they can’t do. You could take them to a place that’s off limits — like a dungeon in a castle.”

New York City might be running low on castles, but it certainly has no shortage of historic attractions and digitally-explorable landscapes. Consider Governor’s Island, a popular tourist hotspot that sits just East of the Statue of Liberty. Today, the island encompasses several historical sites and a national park — but centuries ago, it was a seasonal fishing spot for Native Americans and an outpost for English and Dutch settlers. The island’s history is rich — and relatively inaccessible for most tourists. However, recent AR innovations have begun to allow tourists to walk through history as they traverse the island.

Inventing America is one such tourist-centered tool. Made publicly available in 2018, Inventing America uses an AR-powered app to transport visitors into a 17th-century, post-colonial version of Governor’s Island. The app provides users with the opportunity to delve into storylines, characters, and history even as they explore the real-life Governor’s Island on foot. Experiences in the app are inextricably tied to physical exploration, ensuring that the AR game complements and supports, rather than replaces, a tourist’s real-world experience on the island.

Of course, not all VR- and AR innovations are quite so based in game and narrative. Others, like the New York City-based tour provider The RIDE, use VR and AR experiences to provide tourists with more information as they drive past popular city hotspots. The RIDE melds traditional tour bus routes with augmented reality technology; each of its buses sport 40 LCD TVs, surround sound, and LED lights. This structure, the company notes, allows facilitators to provide “deeply researched audio/visual support conveying the history and growth of Manhattan” during their tours, thereby superimposing a tech-powered view of a past New York onto the view tourists see beyond the bus’s windows.

Emerging virtual tools promise to add all-new layers to New York’s tourism experience, sweeping away the tired tropes of tourist cliches — and we will be all the better for it.

By |2019-07-15T20:51:17+00:00May 30th, 2019|Culture, Technology|